Three University of Mississippi students have been suspended from their campus fraternity after being accused of posing with guns in front of the riverside memorial of slain civil rights icon Emmett Till, according to the Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting.
The students and Kappa Alpha Fraternity members — two of whom the report identifies as Ben LeClere (who appears to be holding a shotgun) and John Lowe (who allegedly squats below the sign) — posed boldly in front of the memorial that commemorates Till, an African-American boy from Chicago who was murdered at age 14 in 1955, in an Instagram photo.
It’s unclear if the bullet holes in the sign were caused by the students in the image, and the third student in the photo has not yet been publicly identified.
LeClere and Lowe did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River in August 1955 after he was brutally beaten to death by white men following an allegation that he had whistled at a female grocery store employee while he was in town visiting family members, and his death marked a defining moment of the civil rights movement.
According to an article by Jerry Mitchell for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, LeClere posted the photo on his private Instagram page on March 1, writing, “One of Memphis’s finest and the worst influence I’ve ever met.”
The snapshot of the Instagram post was recently obtained by the center and made public, ultimately leading to the fraternity suspensions, news of which came a day before Till’s birthday. He would have turned 78 on Thursday.
A copy of a complaint that had been sent to the school was provided to the center, reportedly revealing that LeClere’s photo had “hundreds of ‘likes,’ and no one said a thing.”
The complaint reportedly continued, “I cannot tell Ole Miss what to do, I just thought it should be brought to your attention.”
“I was very stunned to see [the photo] had 274 likes,” Mitchell tells PEOPLE. “I found it hard to believe that it would get liked that many times for potentially — I mean you don’t know for sure, but for potentially standing in front of a sign you just shot.”
Mitchell says the photo was taken down on Tuesday, and the Kappa Alpha Fraternity suspended the three members on Wednesday.
“The chapter leadership suspended the men Wednesday after they learned of the photo late Tuesday,” Ole Miss’ Kappa Alpha Order — which praises Confederate General Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder” on its website — said in a statement to PEOPLE. “This was the strongest discipline they could take at the time. The making of the photo was unrelated to any event or activity of the chapter. The photo is inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable. It does not represent the chapter or Kappa Alpha Order. The chapter looks forward to working with the University on their offer of education, and has contacted the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to determine if and how they would like their assistance in their mission moving forward.”
Upon the release of the fraternity’s statement, university spokesman Rod Guajardo said the school isn’t taking further disciplinary action.
“While the image is offensive, it did not present a violation of university code of conduct,” Guajardo said in a statement provided to PEOPLE. “It occurred off campus and was not part of a university-affiliated event.”
Guajardo added: “We support the actions made by the Kappa Alpha Order leadership in suspending the students involved, and we are aware that this decision is backed by its National Administrative Offices. We stand ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter.”
Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, tells PEOPLE that he saw the photo of the students, and that he thinks “sometimes young men like to meet the trade or look macho when they do things like that.”
“It’s just so sad that we’re still on these kind of things in America,” Parker, 80, adds. “It makes a statement saying how much work we have to do and that people still really feel that way very strongly, and as a black person you try to make sense of it – you try to make sense of it all. What did we do? It’s because of the color of our skin … you just try to make sense of it.”
Parker says he struggles with understanding all the hate.
“You can’t change the color of your skin,” he says. “Why can’t we just accept people as they are? Being African American, I just think how this started —- what did we do? Did we murder people? What did we do? I want to know. I just need help getting to the origin of this because I just can’t find anything that makes sense.”
Ever since the sign for Till was mounted by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission in 2008, the memorial has been a constant target. The commission, which accepts donations here, responded to the latest controversy in a statement posted to its website on Thursday.
“Our signs and ones like them have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, shot, replaced again, shot again, defaced with acid and have had KKK spray painted on them,” said the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. “The vandalism has been targeted and it has been persistent. Occasionally, the national news has picked up the story. More often, these acts have gone unnoticed and been the responsibility of our community to maintain.”
Mitchell tells PEOPLE he was in Mississippi for the June 2018 installation of the third sign.
“I was there and 35 days later, it got shot again,” he says, adding that the third sign was first shot at in July and again in September of that year.
Parker has also been to “one of the unveilings” of the new signs. “I have been to the sign, yes, and again, you just try to make sense of it. I guess that’s the biggest thing,” he tells PEOPLE.
The Memorial Commission is currently working on a fourth and stronger sign that will be designed to combat attacks, according to Mitchell.
Following his horrific death in 1955, Till’s mother, Mamie, famously held an open casket funeral so that people could see firsthand what her son endured. Two white men who were accused of killing the teenager were acquitted of the brutal crime by a white, all-male jury.
Till’s death, the gut-wrenching images from his funeral and the outcome of the trial served as momentous events in the civil rights movement, allowing for more awareness and clarity of the indescribable treatment of African Americans in the south during the time.