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ECU exhibit, play chronicle Emmett Till story

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Emmett Till.


The Daily Reflector

Friday, September 6, 2019

More than six decades after the murder of a teenager became a rallying point for the civil rights movement, his memory is being preserved through the arts.

Emmett Till is the inspiration for both an exhibit and a dramatic production at ECU this month.

The African-American teen was beaten and shot to death in Mississippi in August 1955 after reportedly flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white store clerk. Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.

Till’s name was in the headlines again last month after a photo surfaced showing three Ole Miss students posing with guns beside Till’s bullet-riddled memorial. The memorial sign has been repeatedly vandalized and stolen since it was erected in 2007.

“Obviously it’s very relevant if you watch any of the headlines,” Michael Crane, producing artistic director of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at ECU, said of Till’s name. “(The play) pairs with Joyner Library’s National Endowment for the Humanities on the Road Exhibition ‘For All the World to See.’ You can really frame the performance with what you can see there and just kind of get a big picture (of racial struggles in the 1950s and 1960s).”

In September 1955, Mamie Till Bradley distributed a black-and-white photograph of her 14-year-old son’s mutilated corpse to newspapers and magazines to illustrate the brutality of segregation. While mainstream media rejected the photograph as inappropriate for publication, African-American periodicals were supportive.

“For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” on exhibit through Oct. 20 in the library’s Faulkner Gallery, includes material from the Till case, along with a number of other images that influenced how Americans perceived race and the struggle for equality. It traces how images and media helped to transform the modern civil rights movement by bringing Americans, both black and white, out of a state of denial or complacency.

Part of a nationally touring exhibition from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the exhibit includes an assortment of photographs from magazines including LIFE, JET and EBONY as well as television footage from CBS news and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Also featured are art posters and historic artifacts, including civil rights-era objects that exemplify the range of negative and positive imagery — from Aunt Jemima syrup dispensers to Jackie Robinson baseball memorabilia and 1960s children’s toys with African-American portraiture.

On Sept. 19, 64 years to the day that Bryant’s husband and half-brother went on trial for Till’s murder, actor and playwright Mike Wiley will present “Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till” in Wright Auditorium. Wiley is a former Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The play, which has toured the country and saw a sellout performance this summer at the North Carolina Museum of History, is an original, one-man show that chronicles the murder, trial and confessions of the men accused of Till’s murder.

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury but later sold their kidnapping and murder confession story to a magazine.

The Faulkner Gallery is on the second floor of Joyner Library on the ECU campus. There is no charge to view the exhibit. Call 328-0287.

“Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till” will be presented at 7 p.m. on Sept. 19 in ECU’s Wright Auditorium. Tickets are $10. Seating is general admission. The performance is an added attraction to the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Season, which begins in October. Visit ecu.edu/arts.