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