A photograph of three University of Mississippi students posing with guns beside a bullet-pocked and oft-vandalized historic marker to lynching victim Emmett Till has sparked a possible federal investigation and suspensions of the three by their fraternity.
The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting first published a story about it Thursday, saying the image had circulated on the men's social media accounts.
Ole Miss spokesman Rod Guajardo said the image was reported in March to the university's Bias Incident Response Team, which takes reports of incidents where students, faculty or staff are targeted because of their race or other characteristics. Guajardo said university police asked the FBI to investigate, but says the FBI declined to open an inquiry because the photo "did not pose a specific threat." Brett Carr, a spokesman for the FBI's Jackson office, declined to comment Thursday.
However, U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that federal prosecutors are examining the case. Lamar did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Guajardo called the image "offensive and hurtful" but said the university hasn't disciplined the students because the off-campus picture wasn't part of a university event.
Jesse Lyons, assistant executive director of the Kappa Alpha Order's national office in Lexington, Virginia, said the Ole Miss chapter suspended the three men pictured after leaders learned of the photo Tuesday. The fraternity has long been associated with Old South and Confederate imagery. Although much of that imagery has been suppressed in recent years, the group still claims Confederate Robert E. Lee as its spiritual founder. Lyons said that history has nothing to do with the photo.
"The making of the photo was unrelated to any event or activity of the chapter. It is inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable. It does not represent our Kappa Alpha Order," Lyons wrote in an email.
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The fraternity and university say they're working together. Guajardo said Ole Miss is "ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter."
It's unclear whether the students actually fired at the sign or when the picture was taken. It shows two students standing with guns and a third unarmed student kneeling in tall grass at night, lit by what appear to be the headlights of a vehicle. It's unclear who took the photograph.
The image strikes at what remains one of the nation's most wrenching civil rights cases, decades after Till was slain in 1955. The African American 14-year-old was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he was kidnapped from a relative's home after an encounter with a white woman at a country store. He was tortured and later shot, with his body found weighted down by a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago, letting people see her son's mutilated corpse and electrifying public opinion.
An all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted two white men in the crime.
Like Till himself, the markers placed by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission have been shattered by violence. The marker in the photograph, at the remote spot where Till's body was recovered, was the third to stand there after two earlier markers were destroyed by vandals.
Patrick Weems, the commission's executive director, said the sign was shot sometime in summer 2018 and again in early fall 2018.
"For me, it is just as sacrilegious as if I took the United States flag and shot it up with bullet holes," commission member Jessie Jaymes said in a video produced by the commission in response to the vandalism. "The hearts of some men never change. They mark their territory with bullet holes."
Weems said the sign was removed last week after the center learned news of the picture was likely to emerge. He said officials feared more attention and vandalism. Weems said the commission hasn't been contacted by the university or federal officials. He said the commission plans a fourth marker that's made of hardened steel, more resistant to bullets. He said the commission is also negotiating a lease for 2 acres (0.8 hectares) at the river's edge for a fuller memorial site.
"We already have a new sign on its way," Weems said.
Susan Glisson, who has helped advise the commission on how to memorialize Till in a way that would further healing and justice, said the repeated vandalism is an attempt to blot out the power of the story of what happened to Till, instead upholding a white-dominated social order.
"It's easier to cancel out that story for some people than it is to engage with the truth," said Glisson, co-founder and partner in Sustainable Equity, a consulting firm that works in community building. Glisson was the founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation when it was housed at Ole Miss.
In an earlier case, two students were convicted of federal crimes after draping a noose around the neck of the university's statue of James Meredith in 2014. Meredith integrated Ole Miss in 1962 amid rioting that was suppressed by federal troops.