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Journeys in the Deep South V:  Money & Glendora, off the Blues Highway

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics IX

“Till’s death received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement.”

  • Plaque installed at “Bryant’s Grocery” store, on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

 

Did the murder of a 14-year old boy launch the Civil Rights Movement?  It sounds absurd, but perhaps no more or less absurd than the view that was conventionally held about, say, the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58 [formerly known as the “Sepoy Mutiny”], which was said to be have been triggered by the effrontery that Muslim and Hindu soldiers in the Bengal army of the East India Company experienced when they had to chew on pork and beef fat, respectively, in order to be able to load the cartridges in the rifles that had been issued to them.  Historians and scholars are likely to be wary of a question such as this one, but it continues to excite the popular imagination.  And even the officially-sanctioned narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance in the state of Mississippi, has sometimes come close to adopting this view.

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The plaque outside Bryant’s Grocery Store.  Photograph:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Some months ago, on this blog, I wrote on Emmett Till without taking up this query.  That was before my journey to the Deep South.  A number of books and scores of articles have been written on Emmett Till, who left Chicago to visit his relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955 and never returned home.  His horribly mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River; the face was mutilated beyond recognition. His mother, consumed by grief at her loss and equally daring his murderers to reveal themselves, insisted that young Emmett’s body should be on open display at his funeral.  Her emotional strength was at first not equal to her mental resolve; at his funeral, she fainted before finally coming back to her feet.  Mourners went by Emmett’s body, almost in a daze, their silence a mark both of their rage and respect; elsewhere in America, some must have asked what had provoked the unbridled fury and hatred of white men.

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Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, at his funeral in 1955.  Photographs of her son can be seen on the casket cover.  Source:  Chicago Sun-Times/Getty Images.

My daughter and I veered off the Blues Highway in quest of Money.  On August 21st, 1955, Emmett and his cousin, Wheeler Parker, reached this tiny and non-descript town on a visit to relatives.  Three days later, sometime in the earlier part of the day, the 14-year old Emmett and his cousins arrived at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy some candy.  The story was being manned by Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white woman who lived above the store with her husband, Roy, and their two children.  Apparently, Emmett, who had spent little or no time in the South, had been told that he was in no way to infringe the codes of etiquette and honor that had characterized white plantation society and still dominated relations between blacks and whites.  These codes didn’t merely demand that, nearly a century after the abolition of slavery, black people were always to address white men as “Sir” and white women, when at all they were addressed, as “Ma’am”, no doubt with an explicit show of deference.  (That the entire South, black and white, is down to the present day infused with a touch of such politeness came as a surprise to me: a not inconsiderable difference between the South and the rest of the country.)  The codes were altogether stringent on one point:  white women were untouchable.  Emmett wouldn’t have known about the Cult of Confederate Women and the aura of the sacred: white slave-owners’ version, shall we say for the present, of the Goddess traditions that have informed religiosity in some parts of the world.

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Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, Money, Mississippi, c. 1955.  The date of this photograph has, however, not been identified.  Source:  http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/07/preserving-historic-emmett-till.html

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The plaque outside this store & gas station identifies it as the site of Bryant’s Grocery store, which, notwithstanding efforts to save it as a crucial site in the history of the civil rights movement, was torn down a few years ago.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Carolyn Bryant alleged, at any rate, that the young Emmett flirted with her; and in court she stated, implausibly, that he grabbed her around the waist.  She was something of a beauty—even a “beauty queen”, according to newspaper reports, though what kind in miserable Mississippi we cannot say. Her good looks aggravated the offense, whatever it may have been:  perhaps he had made a lewd suggestion; on some accounts—rumors were thick in the air—Emmett let loose a “wolf whistle”.  Emmett’s cousins were terrified; the boys scrambled and drove off in a jiffy.  The hours passed; sunset would have been around 8:00 PM at that time of the year. They must have tossed and turned in bed, sweating profusely, the terror amplified by the stillness of a hot and humid night:  the slightest sound—the creak of a door, the gentle rustling of leaves, the faint screech of a distant owl—probably sent the boys, and especially Emmett, diving under the covers.

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Money, Mississippi, was never much of a town; it has a dilapidated look about it even today. Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Whatever one’s fears, the sun rises: tomorrow, Emerson said, is the dawn of a new day. That has been described by his detractors as the sunny optimism of a New England man of letters. Nothing had happened.  Another night passed.  And yet another night.  Perhaps the old South, where the lynchings of black males was common sport and entertainment for Sunday picnics, had changed.  Emmett was most likely sleeping better.  And so yet another night passed—almost.  And then, in the wee morning hours of August 28th, they came.  Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett at gun-point and brought him to Milam’s home.  They set about torturing the boy: he was pistol-whipped, stripped naked, bludgeoned, and then shot through the head with a .45-caliber Colt automatic.  Milam’s home no longer stands, but the site is recalled by—what else—a plaque, placed in the midst of a flowery shrub that stands in an expanse of not quite verdant green.

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Here stood Milam’s House, where Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to the journalist William Bradford Huie that they had murdered Emmett Till.  Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The devil’s work is never done.  Slavery may have been a thing of the past, but why should the implements associated with the slave not be put to use? Another chapter in the iconography of the cotton gin fan had yet to be written. From nearby Glendora, Messrs Bryant and Milam lifted an old metal fan that had been used for ginning cotton. They barb-wired Emmett’s body to the seventy-four-pound gin.

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The fan cotton gin which was barb-wired to the dead body of Emmett Till was taken from this site in Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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The fan cotton gin that was introduced as evidence in the trial of Emmett’s murderers subsequently disappeared and has never been found.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Emmett’s body was then dumped into the Tallahatchie River. It would be some days before it was recovered.

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The Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till’s barb-wired body was dumped before being found three days later.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story takes on different hues of the gruesome as it proceeds down to our day.  Early this year, Carolyn Bryant, in a rare interview, confessed that she had made up the part of her testimony where she had claimed that he had grabbed her and made sexual advances.  But let us return to the story, bare bones only:  just days after Emmett was murdered, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were apprehended on charges of murder. They would be brought to trial. An all-white male jury took little time to acquit them of the charges; photographs from their acquittal show friends milling around them in the courtroom after the verdict was pronounced, the whole lot of them grinning from one ear to another.

The story could not be complete, not in America where money is the bitch-goddess, and certainly not in the town of Money without a transaction to sanctify the holy deed.  Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for the tidy sum of $3,150, perhaps a bit more: safeguarded by the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy, they openly and unashamedly confessed to the crime that everyone knew that they had committed.  This part of the story, too, is now part of the record; what is less recognized is the aftermath which fueled more deaths.  Less than 200 meters from where stood the house of Milam, on the night of December 3, a white cotton gin operator by the name of Elmer Otis Kimball drew up in a car at a gas station.  He was driving the automobile owned by J. W. Milam; the gas station attendant was a black man, Clinton Melton.  They got into something of a heated argument; Kimball drove off in a rush, returned to the gas station with a shotgun, and blew Melton away in the presence of the gas station owner and several other witnesses.

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Here in Glendora stood the gas station where Clinton Menton was killed by Elmer Otis Kimball.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Another all-white jury of respectable townsmen deliberated for four hours and found Kimball not guilty. Beulah Melton, Clinton’s wife, did not live to see this outcome: as she was driving her car the day before the trial, she was forced off the road. Her car fell into the bayou; her death was deemed “an accident”.

My daughter and I were headed for Money when we stumbled upon Emmett’s trail.  Emmett’s story is now the stuff of history books; the young boy was pronounced a martyr years ago. The road that brings one close to Money is called the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. But I suspect that many elements of this epic tale have not yet been fathomed by those who are operating only within the vortex of ‘history’.  Emmett had to be sacrificed: in this Biblical land, certainly as the slave-owners and their descendants understood it, perpetrators of crimes and their victims both partake of this language and mythos.  Emmett never returned home; neither did slaves.  The exile continues—the exile not from Africa, but the exile from the very notion of the human. Slavery’s afterlives make sacrificial victims of black people. The ocean gobbled up so many lives during the Middle Passage; bodies were thrown overboard.  No slave died a ‘natural death’, or else the insurance companies would not pay up: here, too, the bitch-goddess. Emmett’s body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River; Beulah drowned in the bayou.

The water, the water, bottomless, fathomless, cruel.  But it is not without its trail . . .

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Journeys in the Deep South II:  The Lorraine Hotel, Memphis

The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics V

Paul Robeson was quite possibly nay certainly the most talented person in 20th Century America and a gigantic figure on the world stage.  This will strike many people as an absurd claim:  Robeson is now a largely forgotten figure, even if known in passing to many among those with more than a modicum of knowledge about American arts, letters, and politics.  Some will object that he is commemorated with an American postage stamp, a sure sign of his recognition and even admission into the ranks of the establishment.  At this juncture, I will not speak at length of the politics of postage stamps; suffice to say that the postage stamp is practically obsolete.  The philatelist is now akin to a troglodyte, a remnant of a different age; certainly, judging from the example of my own children, the postage stamp is barely even an object of curiosity.  Few American children of the present generation have ever mailed a letter:  a subject for another set of reflections.  So, all this is by way of suggesting that a postage stamp no longer redeems an individual or puts him or her on a pedestal, and one can barely conclude from Robinson’s deification on a postage stamp that America recognizes him for the supreme genius that he was.

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Robeson first acquired a reputation as American college football’s greatest star, though as a black person even this recognition was very late in coming; he also went on to earn varsity letters in track, basketball, and football.  It is doubtful that there was ever a more accomplished college athlete than Robeson.  But should one think that he had merely set the example for the professional black athlete, and paved the way for a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Michael Jordan, it is well to recall that he graduated from Rutgers in 1919 as the class valedictorian.  He then went on to build a reputation as an international opera star, singer, and movie and theater actor; he was the first black man to play the role of Othello, first in London and then, during World War II, on Broadway, in which role he had a longer run than any other actor, white or black:  300 performances.  By the 1920s, Robeson, born in April 1898, had earned a law degree from Columbia University; he was, moreover, already a committed political activist, and in the late 1930s he became part of the international brigade of volunteers determined to confront the rise of fascism in Spain.

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Paul Robeson with Uta Hagen in the Theatre Guild production of Othello (1943–4).  Source:  Wiki Commons.

It is also in the 1930s that Robeson turned towards Africa, in an attempt to understood his own roots and heritage; at home, in the United States, this had already led him to become a forceful voice against lynching and a ferocious advocate of the rights of the working class, white as much as black.  In 1934, by which time Robeson had made London his home, he enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is said to have studied a score of African dialects.  To his many other gifts, which make words such as ‘extraordinary’ appear positively pedestrian, we can add his flair for languages.  The National Archive webpage on Robeson mentions, quite casually, that he sang in more than 25 languages, a claim substantiated by the archival record and many of his biographers; the short biography of him that appears on the PBS website states “that he spoke fifteen languages”. In his late 50s, Robeson turned to the study of Arabic and Hebrew.  The phrase ‘Renaissance Man’, clichéd as it is, seems wholly inadequate to describe a person of his oceanic accomplishments.

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Peggy Ashcroft and, as Othello, Paul Robeson, 1930.

In 1939, on the eve of the war, Robeson returned to the United States where he was at once established as the country’s “Number One” entertainer.  But Robeson’s political awakening had also taken him to the Soviet Union.  His son has described his father’s intellectual journey aptly: “Freedom movements in the European colonies of Africa and Asia faced fierce repression, with many top leaders in prison or in exile.  The eloquent voices of Gandhi and Nehru in India, as well the compelling appeals of freedom movement leaders from the length and breadth of the African continent, were eliciting ever greater international support as the Soviet Union threw its considerable weight behind the anticolonialist cause” (Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist’s Journey, 1898-1939 [New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 2001], 285).  Though Robeson’s support for the American war effort was unequivocal, his concert tour in the Soviet Union (1936-37), refusal to criticize Soviet policies, and outspoken defense of the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the war earned him the enmity of anti-communist crusaders.  He was among the most prominent people in the country to be investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his committee; his passport was revoked.  The exchange that transpired between him and members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on 12 June 1956 is a remarkable document, a timely and chilling reminder of the revival of brute strategies of compelling fealty to flag and country in our own times:

“Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. . . .  The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too.”

“This United States Government”, Robeson told the court of inquisition, “should go down to Mississippi and protect my people.  That is what should happen.”  Why, as Robeson had asked more than once, would Negroes fight on behalf of a government that had ruthlessly put them down for 300 years against a nation [the Soviet Union] where racial discrimination was prohibited?  Let us listen to another portion of the exchange:

“In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being. Where I did not feel the pressure of color as I feel [it] in this Committee today.

“Mr. SCHERER: Why do you not stay in Russia?

“Mr. ROBESON: Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear? I am for peace with the Soviet Union, and I am for peace with China, and I am not for peace or friendship with the Fascist Franco, and I am not for peace with Fascist Nazi Germans. I am for peace with decent people.”

As their exchange winds up, Robeson ends with a devastating indictment: “You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” The damage, however, had been done; Robeson was a wounded, marked man.  In consequence of his public defilement, he found that he was shunned by artists, intellectuals, and former colleagues and fellow-travelers in ideas.  His income declined sharply and Robeson went into forced early retirement.  In the late 1950s, by virtue of the decision of the Supreme Court, in the case of Kent v. Dulles, Robeson’s passport was returned to him.  He had a triumphant thunderous concert tour in the Soviet Union in 1959, but this ‘rehabilitation’ came too late as the ostracism had taken a physical and mental toll of his life.  For the remainder of his life, until his death in 1976, Robeson became largely a recluse.

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Paul Robeson, “Negro Songs”, a recording in Russian issued by the Soviet Ministry of Culture.

This brings me, then, to the Lorraine Hotel, the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination and now a majestic Civil Rights Museum.  I shall speak of it as a memorial site to King elsewhere.  For now, I have another nagging doubt.  Whatever the differences between the movement’s most well-known advocates, and whatever, for example, the strategic differences between major organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and others, the adherence to nonviolence remained common to the movement’s different constituent elements. Even Malcolm X is acknowledged, with respect.  How is it, then, that in this museum, where the struggle of African Americans to claim a rightful place for themselves in the history of America is documented with such sensitivity, the name of Paul Robeson is—as far as I can tell—entirely missing from the grand narrative which takes us from the Emancipation Proclamation to King’s “I’ve Seen the Mountain-top” speech and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965)?  How is it that Paul Robeson, a colossus among giants, remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, unsung in this shrine to the struggle of black people—a shrine shaped by Robeson’s own people?  Is it the case that the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights movement, many of whom remained committed to a staunch anti-communism, were never reconciled to Robeson, perhaps seeing in him a well-meaning naïve human rights advocate who could not and would not recognize the unmitigated evils of Stalinist Russia?

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Editorial drawing of Paul Robeson by Charles Alston, 1943.  Source:  National Archives of the United States.  http://www.archives.gov/files/images/alston-drawing.jgp

Through the mid-1950s, after that is the murder of Emmett Till, the commencement of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the activism of Medgar Evers that would lead to his assassination, Robeson continued to be recognized, more particularly in the African American press, as a unique spokesperson for black people.  The Afro-American, published from Baltimore, was forthright in its headline reporting what had transpired at Robeson’s investigation by the House Committee: “Mr. Robeson is Right” (23 June 1956).  The Sun-Reporter of San Francisco, on the same day, affirmed his place in the American public sphere: “Robeson as far as most Negroes are concerned occupies a unique position in the U.S., or the world, for that matter.  Whites hate and fear him simply because he is the conscience of the U.S. in the field of color relations.”  The Charlottesville-Albermale Tribune on June 22 declared the House Committee’s persecution of Robeson a “fiasco” and ventured to give forth the opinion that denying Robeson the right to travel or sing “is more hurtful to American prestige abroad than any intemperate statement he ever made.”  Other black-owned newspapers, none that could be characterized as communist in their ideological predisposition, were similarly effusive in their praise of Robeson as the preeminent voice “for justice, happiness and freedom”, as the supreme embodiment of “the unrestrained and righteous rage that has broken bonds” (California Voice, Oakland, 22 June 1956).

What is thus clear is that Robeson remained not merely in the limelight in the mid-1950s but that he was generally recognized as the conscience of black America.  His evisceration from the public record is deplorable enough, but the fact that he should have been excised from the memory even of much of black America and from the narratives of the struggle for civil rights is something that is profoundly troubling.  In 1948, W. E. B. DuBois had been forced out of the NAACP, which considered DuBois’s sympathies for communism a liability; a decade later, the NAACP was itself marginalized as SCLC and the radicals of SNCC pushed for a more aggressive stance against segregation and racism.  The Civil Rights Movement might well be the only revolution that the United States has ever had; even here, though, the absence of Paul Robeson from the received narrative points to what the conventional language of Marxism would characterize as its essentially “bourgeois” characteristic.  Whatever else might be required to bring the still unredeemed promise of the Civil Rights movement to fruition, Paul Robeson will certainly have to be given his due, and more.

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