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Posts Tagged ‘murder of Emmett Till’

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 IV:  The Murder of M L King, Jr. and Medgar Evers

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

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is indisputably a world-historical figure.  One cannot say what would have become of him had he not been assassinated in Memphis on the evening of April 4, 1968.  His peer, the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, is far from being a household name in the United States.  The airport in Jackson, Mississippi, is now named after Medgar Evers, but even in his native Mississippi I found that many did not recognize his name; to the rest of the world, he is all but an unknown entity.  Yet one might still reasonably call Evers an “icon”, since in the histories of the civil rights movement he is justly a celebrated figure.

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Statue of Medgar Wiley Evers, outside the Medgar Evars Public Library at 4215 Medgar Evers Boulevard, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Martin Luther King was 39 years old when he was silenced: I would not say ‘forever silenced’, because he speaks to us still; or, as a cartoonist from the Chicago Sun-Times put it more arrestingly, men such as him have to be assassinated repeatedly. This is something of which assassins are profoundly unaware.  Medgar Evers was not quite 38, yet almost there, when a sniper took his life outside his own home as he returned home around midnight after another day of work organizing his people to equip them to resist racism and oppression.  Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, had a stint in the US army before he earned a degree in business administration from Alcorn A&M College.  As an insurance salesman working for Magnolia Mutual Life, moving from one house to another, he came to see first-hand what he already knew by virtue of being a black in Mississippi, namely the deep poverty that afflicted most black homes in his native state.  In 1954, he applied, without success, to Mississippi Law School and at once moved to accept the position, which had been offered to him on the basis of ad hoc work that he had already been doing on behalf of the NAACP, of regional field secretary for the same organization.

The murder of Emmett Till the following year would draw Medgar Evers deeper into civil rights work.  His voice was loud and clear in insisting on a civil rights investigation into Till’s murder and Evers was relentless in seeking to bring the murderers to justice.  As Medgar’s wife, Myrlie, recalled decades after, “Looking back, I know that from that time on [that is, after he had resolved to track down Till’s killers,] I never lost the fear that Medgar himself would be killed.”[i] Only months later, Martin Luther King, then a young preacher of little renown, was cast into the limelight when he accepted the call of black leaders in Montgomery and agreed to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  King’s rapid rise to fame has been documented in hundreds of books:  he would go on to become a founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and in the early 1960s a series of interventions and engagements —the Albany Campaign, the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington—made him indisputably into the public face of the Civil Rights movement.  The conferral of the Nobel Peace Prize was, some reckoned, the crowning glory.

Meanwhile, Medgar Evers, perhaps the epitome of a grass-roots organizer, worked incessantly to bring black voter registration to every hamlet and town in Mississippi.  Such work, in much of the Deep South, was an invitation to an assassination.  In June 1963, shortly after SCLC had commenced a campaign against economic injustice and racial segregation in Birmingham, the situation in neighboring Mississippi had become tense.  White-owned businesses had been targeted for boycott by black leaders; and students from Tougaloo College had initiated sit-ins at Woolworth’s.  On the evening of June 11, President Kennedy gave a televised address to the nation billed as a “Report to the American People on Civil Rights.”  The President affirmed that the “nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”  Several hours after President Kennedy delivered his address, Medgar Evers pulled up in the driveway to his home and slid the car under the car port.  He opened the trunk to his car to take out a stack of t-shirts bearing the logo, “JIM CROW MUST GO”—t-shirts that were to be used in a demonstration in the morning in downtown Jackson. Just then, he was felled by a bullet in his back which tore through his chest, shattering the living room window and passing through the kitchen wall before ricocheting off the refrigerator.

 

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The driveway of the Medgar Evers home where Evers was killed in the very early hours of 12 June 1963.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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Medgar Evers had pulled up in his car and parked behind the family station wagon. Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The bullet hole in the kitchen wall can still be seen in what was then the family home of Medgar and Myrlie Evers and their children.

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The hole in the kitchen wall created by the trajectory of the bullet after it had ripped apart Medgar Evers.  Site:  Medgar Evers Home, Jackson, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

The white t-shirts were stained with Medgar Evers’ blood.

The country, too, was indelibly stained—except that the country was never white, not white in fact, in color, in purity, or in nobleness of intent.

Medgar Evers’ killer was a sniper, a former army man by the name of Byron de la Beckwith who served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific theater of the war. He responded to the Supreme Court decision that held segregation in schools unconstitutional by becoming a member of the Citizens’ Council, a white supremacist organization; he also attended Ku Klux Klan rallies.  Twice he was tried for Evers’ killing; on both occasions, an all-white male jury acquitted him.  In Mississippi then, though to what degree this is substantially different now is an open question, the possibility that a white man would be convicted for the death of a black man was impossibly remote.  Not until 1994 was Beckwith, who had over the years openly boasted of killing Evers at KKK rallies, finally convicted.  To the end of his days, Beckwith remained not merely unrepentant:  he described himself as disgusted and repulsed by the touch of a black person, and he tried to ensure that no black doctor or nurse would attend to him at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where he passed on, not a moment too soon, on 21 January 2001.

Beckwith had scouted the neighborhood where Evers lived for days before he finally took his life, shooting him from a home that was set further back diagonally across the street with an Enfield .30-06 caliber rifle equipped with a telescope.  I wonder whether he inspired James Earl Ray, the supposed assassin of Martin Luther King, who also shot the civil rights leader from a building across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, where King had been staying when he was called to Memphis by Reverend James M. Lawson to help with the sanitation workers’ strike.  Ray apparently used a Remington Model 760 rifle with a telescope, and positioned himself in a bathroom on the top floor of the rooming house diagonally across from the hotel:  when King stepped out onto the balcony outside Room 306, he was a sitting duck.  A .30-06 bullet entered his right cheek and ripped apart several vertebrae as it traveled down the spinal cord.

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The bullet that killed Medgar Evers was fired by Beckwith, who had positioned himself in the house, here in the background, diagonally across from the Evers family home.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

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James Earl Ray, or whoever the assassin of King may have been, fired from a bathroom adjoining this window on the top floor of the rooming house across from the Lorraine Hotel, Memphis; the spot where King was standing when he was felled by a bullet is marked by the wreath.  The assassin had a clear view of his target.   Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

 

Both King and Evers were tireless workers for the cause:  they went into the trenches and soldiered on, whatever the setbacks, disappointments, obstacles, and threats.  Evers was almost 38 years old at the time of his murder, and King was just a little older than him when he was felled by an assassin’s bullet.  Neither reached the ripe old age of 40.  There is no controversy as such over Evers’ assassination; the facts of it are well-established.  The same cannot be said of the assassination of King, about which doubts linger on and will surely never be dispelled.  But the modus operandi of the assassinations seems to have been remarkably similar in many respects.  And yet, as I commenced this piece, Medgar Evers is now little known outside his native Mississippi, except to students of the Civil Rights movement, while Martin Luther King, Jr has taken his place among the immortals and has been adjudged alongside Gandhi as one of the supreme exponents of nonviolent resistance.

The contrasting trajectories of Evers and King in the aftermath of their assassination say something perhaps about the vicissitudes of fame. King wanted to be remembered only as a “drum major” for the cause; he didn’t know that he would be credited as the orchestrator, conductor, and drum major of a movement.  Is it King’s oratory that his endeared him to history, or are there accidents of history that pushed him to the fore?  Perhaps we would be better served spending less time trying to probe the conspiracy theories that swirl around King’s assassination and reflecting rather more on how some people enter into history and others in rather similar circumstances become relegated to footnotes. And yet a foonote, as Anthony Grafton reminds us in his marvelous book, The Footnote: A Curious History, is no small thing.  Sometimes it endures when the text it is meant to embellish, illuminate, or explicate has all but vanished.

 

[i] Myrlie Evers with William Peters, “Mississippi Murders”, Civil Rights since 1787, eds. Jonathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor (New York:  New York University Press, 2000), 355-57.

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