Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday is a time to reflect on Reverend King’s legacy and stories of overcoming racial hatred and injustice.
As Dr. King organized and led marches for equal rights in the South, he was fighting prejudice against black Americans which had lasted generations.
Over the course of the 100 years before Dr. King began his crusade, landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases like the Dred Scott Decision (1857) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had officially designated black men and women as the chattel of white slave owners or, even after slavery long ended, second-class citizens under the “separate but equal” apartheid system which institutionalized racism. In 1954, the Supreme Court over-ruled the “separate but equal” doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education case, holding that the doctrine was “inherently unequal.” But states like Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi continued to openly discriminate against blacks in all aspects of education, employment and life. It was in these states where Dr. King had his work cut out for him.
Stories of racists murdering African-Americans, including children, in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s may seem like ancient history, but many of these events occurred during my childhood. None of the stories should be forgotten.
The death of 14 year old Emmett Till is one story that has haunted me for years. Emmett was an African-American from Chicago whose mother, Mamie Till, sent him south for the summer months. Emmett lived with his uncle, Reverend Mose Wright, in a small house outside of the town of Money, Mississippi, a dozen miles or so north of Greenwood.
Money is the tiniest of towns, bordered to the west by the Tallahatchie River and to the east by a railroad track separating the town from endless miles of cotton fields. In the mid 1950’s the town of Money consisted of a large cotton gin, a few tin-roofed buildings, and a church. Bryant’s grocery store was a focal point in the little town. It was frequented by the local residents including the families of black sharecroppers.
I used to spend parts of my summers in a similar town in Mississippi called Morgan City, which is a dozen or so miles south of Greenwood. Like Money, Morgan City had a large cotton gin, a church and some stores. It was north of the town of Belzoni (pronounces bell-zone-na) where my great grandfather served as the mayor and ran the post office around 1902.
During the summer, my grandfather would drive me and sometimes my brother and sister from south Arkansas to Mississippi to visit my Uncle Bob, a cotton farmer, and Aunt Jessie. Other than fishing for brim with a cane pole, there was not much to do except swing from a tire hung from an oak tree and play with my uncle’s coonhounds which lived under the front porch of the family’s wooden farm house. At night, our entertainment consisted of listening to the crickets & cicadas which lived in the cotton fields which surrounded the house, and trying not to sweat in the un-airconditioned old wooden house.
Morgan City, like Money, was a completely segregated society in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I remember the men and women who worked in my uncle’s cotton fields entering my uncle’s house only through the back kitchen door and drinking only out of large Mason jars used for canning vegetables.
Delta towns like Money and Morgan City were (and remain) part of the most impoverished region in the United States. In 1969 the award winning book Still Hungry in America by Robert Coles (with photographs by Al Clayton) chronicled the poverty crippling the black community in the delta of Mississippi. The book focused on Belzoni. (NPR returned to Belzoni in 2006 and found that nothing had changed). This part of the country was the last place where schools in the U.S. were integrated and African-Americans were permitted to vote. As a child I could see that things were not right. But it was only later that as a student of history I fully understood that the Mississippi Delta was the epicenter of the KKK, racial lynchings, and the murder of civil rights activists.
The town of Belzoni was still litigating against black voter registration as late as the the mid 1970’s, some twenty years after one of the first civil rights leaders, Reverend George Lee, was gunned down in the street in front of the Belzoni courthouse. His murderers were never arrested, even though the murder occurred in broad daylight (my photo of the site is here).
So it was in these dangerous delta days in Mississippi that Emmett Till found himself as a child in the summer of 1955. On August 28th while his uncle preached at a Wednesday evening Bible study, Emmett and his southern cousins walked into Money and stopped at Bryant’s grocery store. Ignoring his mother’s instructions about the behavior expected of blacks in Mississippi, Emmett bought some candy from the white woman behind the counter. While leaving the store, he said something like ”Bye, Baby.” Other accounts suggest that he may have whistled at her.
When Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman from the store, returned to Money from his truck driving job, he and his half-brother J.W. Milam, 6′ 2” and weighing 235 lbs, drove over to Uncle Wright’s house armed with pistols. They took “the boy” from his uncle and disappeared with Emmett into the night. The two men beat, pistol-whipped and tortured Emmett over the course of several hours. They finally shot him in the head. The men dumped Emmett in the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound gin fan secured with barbed wire around his neck.
Emmett’s body was found in the river by some boys who were fishing. There was a rush to bury Emmett and hide the spectacle of his tortured body. But his mother, Mamie Till, transported her son’s remains to Chicago. She held an open-casket funeral so the world could see her son’s mutilated, bloated body.
History shows that instances of racial violence are usually followed by injustice in the legal system. Emmett’s story is no different. Emmett’s uncle showed the courage to overcome racial slurs and death threats to attend the criminal trial of Bryant and Milam. He rose during the trial and pointed squarely to Milan as one of the men who took Emmett away. But this was Mississippi in 1955. The all-white male jury quickly acquitted the two white men of kidnapping and murder of the black boy. You can read the trial transcript here. After they were acquitted, Bryant and Milam were photographed laughing with their wives and, later, smoking a cigar.
The injustice to Mamie Till and the black community became even more unreal when, a year after the trial, the half-brothers confessed (for money) in Look magazine to the crime and laid out the horrific details, which you can read here.
I returned to Mississippi in 2008 after over 45 years. My mother accompanied me and directed me to many places that I would have forgotten. My great grandfather’s grave site has been vandalized (photo here). The stores in Morgan City and Belzoni which were not abandoned looked old and run down. My uncle’s Bob’s farmhouse was bulldozed after a tornado hit Morgan City in the 1970’s. The huge oak tree where we played as kids was nowhere to be seen. I somehow still looked for Uncle Bob’s coondogs, and the tree-swing where I played with my sister.
Mom and I drove up to Money to see Bryant’s grocery and pay our respects to Emmett. A train rumbled down the tracks as we headed into town. I thought of Mamie Till kissing her son goodbye before placing him on a train in Chicago for his fateful trip south, 53 years ago.
The cotton gin in Money is closed now. All that’s left is a closed post office and a few houses here and there, and a church. We drove over to the location where uncle Wright’s house was located, now long gone. We drove across the bridge over the Tallahatchie River (my photo here) and said a prayer for Emmett.
When I visited Money, there was no reference to Emmett or the civil rights movement that he helped start. I have heard that there is now a historical marker at the site.
Bryant’s grocery is dilapidated (my photo is below). I found it shuttered with plywood, and the roof and windows had fallen in. After taking a series of photos (which you can see here), I was happy to get into the car with my mom and drive past the cotton fields back home.