Fraternity Members Suspended over Photo with Guns Taken in Front of Emmett Till Memorial

Three University of Mississippi students were suspended from the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity on Wednesday after posing with firearms in front of a memorial sign dedicated to Emmitt Till, the African American teen whose brutal 1955 murder would become a key moment in the Civil Rights Movement. The students' suspension came the day before what would have been Till's 78th birthday.

The photo showed the students holding firearms in their hands in front of a bullet-ridden plaque marking the site where Till's body was removed from the Tallahatchie River, three days after he had been kidnapped, beaten and fatally shot. Along with the students involved being suspended from Kappa Alpha, the photo was referred to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for further investigation.

This isn't the first time the Kappa Alpha fraternity, which has chapters on over 30 campuses and credits Confederate General Robert E. Lee with being a spiritual founder, has come under scrutiny. In February, yearbook photos from 1993 and 1995 surfaced, showing members of the Millsaps College Kappa Alpha chapter in blackface and wearing military uniforms and standing with a Confederate flag.

In 2009, the fraternity apologized after a parade of men in Confederate uniforms stopped in front of a historically black sorority house at the University of Alabama. The fraternity has since banned displaying the Confederate flag and wearing the uniform at events.

University of Mississippi spokesman Rod Guajardo told Newsweek that the public university, commonly referred to as Ole Miss, learned about the photo in March after it was reported to the Bias Incident Response team. Guajardo called the image and actions portrayed in the photo "offensive and hurtful" but noted that it occurred off-campus, wasn't part of a university-affiliated event and didn't constitute a violation of the university's code of conduct.

kappa alpha emmett till suspended fraternity guns
Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed. On Wednesday, the day before what would have been Till's 71st birthday, three members of Kappa Alpha fraternity at the University of Mississippi were suspended for posing in front of a memorial to Till with firearms. Bettmann/Getty

The photo was referred to the University Police Department, which referred it to the FBI. However, the police department was later informed that the FBI would not be investigating it because it did not pose a specific threat.

While the students did not face consequences with the school, Guajardo told Newsweek that Ole Miss supported Kappa Alpha's decision to suspend the members and was ready to assist with educational opportunities.

"The University of Mississippi will continue to build programs that engage our students in deliberate, honest and candid conversations while making clear that we unequivocally reject attitudes that do not respect the dignity of each individual in our community," Guajardo said.

The Ole Miss Kappa Alpha chapter confirmed the men in the photo were suspended but said that it was not taken during a chapter event or activity.

"The chapter's leadership learned of the photo late last night. The photo is inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable. It does not represent our chapter," Kappa Alpha said. "We have and will continue to be in communication with our national organization and the University."

U.S. Attorney Chad Lamar of the Northern District of Mississippi told ProPublica information about the photo was referred to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. During the investigation, Lamar noted he would be working closely with the Civil Right's Division.

Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, the organization responsible for the signs, told Newsweek that the organization is not sure if the students were responsible for the bullet holes or if the sign was already vandalized when the students arrived. However, the organization would be happy to work with the authorities to see if the guns in the photo matched the bullet holes.

Signs dedicated to Till have been vandalized in the past at a rate that Weems characterized as "persistent." Sometimes the vandalism occurs quickly after the signs are erected, other times they've been left alone for six months or a year.

When asked whether Weems suspected the photo was taken out of ignorance or hatred, he said, either way, it was bad.

"If they honestly didn't know the history of Emmet Till and their institutions haven't taught them about this story that's almost as bad as doing it out of hate," Weems said. "It shows our community a clear sign of intimidation whether it was intentional or not."

In 1955, two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were indicted for the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Till. Bryant's wife Carolyn claimed the teen had inappropriately flirted with — and whistled at — her while making a purchase at the store she ran. The two men then abducted Till from his great uncle's home in Money, Mississippi, then brutally beat and fatally shot the young man before his body was dumped in the river. When Till's body was recovered, it was unrecognizable and his great uncle was only able to identify him by a ring on the teen's finger.

Till's mother opted for an open casket to show what happened to her son and his tragic death became a rallying point for the Civil Rights Movement. Both Milam and Bryant were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, though they would subsequently confess in a January 1956 interview with Look magazine to having slaughtered Till. Having been acquitted at trial, double jeopardy prevented prosecutors from being able to hold the two men accountable for their crime.

Carolyn Bryant testified in the trial that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered profanities, but in the 2008 book, The Blood of Emmett Till, she admitted that she had lied.

"You tell these stories for so long that they seem true," Carolyn Bryant told author Timothy Tyson about her claim that Till had accosted her, "but that part is not true."

Correction 7/26, 1:00 p.m. This story originally said the suspension occurred the day before what would have been Till's 71st birthday; it would have been his 78th.