Emmett Till Park to open in Mississippi Delta town
By TIMOTHY R. BROWN | Associated Press Writer
1:53 PM CDT, September 16, 2008
JACKSON, Miss. – A 20-acre park and nature trail in memory of Emmett Till will open Friday in the tiny Mississippi Delta town of Glendora, almost 53 years to the day after an all-white jury acquitted two white men in the brutal murder of the black teenager.
The Emmett Till Memorial Park & Interpretive Nature Trail is an extension of a museum honoring the Chicago 14-year-old whose death helped bring national attention to the brutality of segregation. The park will include picnic pavilions, a baseball field and an outdoor stage.
Till was kidnapped Aug. 28, 1955, from his uncle’s home in the rural community of Money after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Three days later, a fisherman spotted Till’s mangled body in the Tallahatchie River.
The teen’s body was unrecognizable, except for a ring. Till’s mother insisted on a public viewing and funeral in Chicago. Pictures of the brutalized body shocked the world.
Glendora is the same town where Clinton Melton was murdered, soon after the trial ended that found Till’s murderers innocent.
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Once the 1955 J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant trial ended in Sumner, Mississippi for the murder of Emmett Till, less than a month later in the nearby small cotton town of Glendora, a black service station attendant and father of four children was killed by a friend of Milam’s.
Elmer Kimball murdered Clinton Melton and then nineteen days later, Melton’s young wife was killed, only a week before Kimball’s murder trial opened.
Fourteen-year-old Till of Chicago was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta at the end of August when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed after he was accused of whistling at a white store clerk.
Then in December, Clinton Melton was murdered only four miles from where Emmett Till’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River six months earlier. Kimball, Milam’s friend, had lived in Glendora for a short time, managing a local cotton gin, and had an account at the gas station where Melton worked.
On the day of the murder, Kimball, 35, was driving a car borrowed from his friend, J.W. Milam, one of the two men accused and acquitted of killing Till, when he drove to the gas station and asked for a fill-up. Melton’s daughter, Deloris Melton Gresham, was a toddler when her parents were killed, but she later was told what occurred at the service station:
“When Kimball drove up to the station, my father’s boss told my father to go out and fill up his car. But when he was done filling the car, Kimball went into a rage and said he only wanted a dollar’s worth of gas, and that he was going to go home and get his gun to shoot him. The gas station owner tried to talk him down, but couldn’t. He told him my father was a good negro and that he did not deserve to be hurt. He really pleaded with Kimball.”
As soon as Kimball left, his boss told him that he had better leave, fast. But his car was out of gas and he had to fill it first. Kimball came right back and began shooting at my father. Another man was in his car with him, and yelled for him not to shoot. He jumped out of the car and ran into the station to hide. On arrest, Kimball claimed Melton shot at him first. McGarrh [the white owner of the gas station] denied this, adding that Melton did not have a gun at any time during the quarrel. A bullet hole was found in the windshield of Melton’s parked car.
An angry Southern newspaper publisher, Hodding Carter, reacted to the murder of one of “Mississippi’s own,” comparing it to the Till case in a Delta-Times editorial:
[Melton] was no out-of-state smart alec. He was home-grown and “highly respected.”…. There was no question of an insult to Southern womanhood. There was only an argument about … gasoline. There was no pressure by the NAACP, “credited” with the outcome of the Till trial…. So another “not guilty” verdict was written at Sumner this week. And it served to cement the opinion of the world that no matter how strong the evidence, nor how flagrant is the apparent crime, a white man cannot be convicted in Mississippi for killing a negro.
LITTLE ATTENTION was given to the death of Gresham’s mother that occurred on or around December 21, 1955, approximately nineteen days after Clinton Melton was killed on December 3. Officially, her mother’s death was blamed on faulty driving. “Later, a relative told me that was not true, that everyone knew she was run off the road,” Gresham said.
Gresham, a toddler at the time, recalled being trapped inside her mother’s car as it sank to the bottom of a murky bayou near Glendora. A relative driving by saved her life and that of her baby brother. But Beulah Melton drowned.
“My mother was a pretty woman, known for being bright and outspoken,” Gresham said. “People who knew her have told me we are very much alike – both in looks and in personality.”
Beulah Melton had been picking up information on her husband’s death and would have been a “problem” for Kimball at the trial, Gresham said.
From news accounts and the talk around Glendora, there was no provocation of her father’s killing. It was outright murder, according to white witnesses, including the white service station owner. The Melton family was well known in Glendora. Clinton Melton had lived there all his life and, “for once, white people spoke out against the killing of a negro. The local Lions Club adopted a resolution branding the murder ‘an outrage’ [and pledging to donate $400 to the family],” Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, later wrote.
Melton’s widow told Medgar Evers she feared justice would not be done if the NAACP interested itself in the case, and asked him not to become involved. “Her wishes were respected.”
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Where the service station once stood in Glendora, site of Melton’s murder
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In a later investigation after her death, Medgar Evers discovered the club had given the widow only twenty-six dollars and that a local white minister had given her sixty dollars of his own.
Relatives took in Delores Melton Gresham and her siblings, and Gresham continued to live in Glendora with her grandmother. “My grandfather was so upset, he left Glendora and never came back.”
Unlike some earlier Mississippi white on black murders, Kimball was charged for the murder and although not convicted, spent some time in jail:
Kimball Loses Bid for Freedom on Bond
Sumner, Miss. (AP) –December 28, 1955 – Elmer Kimball today lost his bid for freedom on bond while awaiting grand jury action on a charge of murdering a Negro man.
Three justices of the peace held a preliminary hearing for the white gin operator and refused bond. Officers returned Kimball to jail to await action of the grand jury which meets next March. The hearing was held in the little courthouse where the sensational Emmett Till trial was held. Bond usually is refused in cases where a person is accused of a crime which carries a possible death sentence upon conviction.
Kimball is charged with murder in the shotgun slaying of Clinton Melton, Negro service station attendant at nearby Glendora and father of four children. The accused man testified he fired in self-defense after someone shot at him three times. Kimball said he didn’t know who fired until he returned the fire and killed Melton.
Lee McGarrh, Melton’s employer, testified that Kimball fired without provocation, and Melton was unarmed. He said Kimball became angry at the Negro during an argument over gasoline for Kimball’s car. McGarrh said Kimball declared he was going home for his gun and [sic] kill Melton. ***
ONE WIRE SERVICE sent a staff member to cover the Kimball trial, and the only Mississippi newspaper that sent a staffer was Carter’s Greenville Delta Democrat-Times. Reporter David Halberstam remained in Mississippi after the Milam-Bryant trial and wrote as a freelancer.
This time cameras were barred, not only from the courtroom but also from the entire courthouse property, and no press table was set up. The sentiment [for conviction] was particularly strong in the Glendora community where Kimball shot Melton and where both the deceased and the defendant were well known, according to Halberstam: “Elsewhere in Talahatchie County, of course, it tended to become the usual matter of a white man and a black man.”
Defining “Good” and “Bad”
Halberstam assessed the environment before the trial got started:
“A friend of mine divides the white population of Mississippi into two categories. The first and largest contains the good people of Mississippi, as they are affectionately called by editorial writers, politicians, and themselves. The other group is a smaller but in many ways more conspicuous faction called the peckerwoods.
“The good people will generally agree that the peckerwoods are troublemakers, and indeed several good people have told me they joined the Citizens Councils because otherwise the peckerwoods would take over the situation entirely. It is the good people who will tell you that their town has enjoyed racial harmony for many years, while it is the peckerwoods who may confide that they know how to keep the niggers in their place; it is the good people who say and mean, “We love our nigras,” and it is the peckerwoods who say and mean, “If any big buck gets in my way it’ll be too damn bad.”
“But while the good people would not act with the rashness of and are not governed by the hatred of the peckerwood, they are reluctant to apply society’s normal remedies to the peckerwood. Thus it is the peckerwoods who kill Negroes and the good people who acquit the peckerwoods…”
DESPITE HIS PLEAS of self-defense, Kimball was denied bond in two preliminary hearings. The biggest problem at the trial facing District Attorney Roy Johnson and County Attorney Hamilton Caldwell, according to Halberstam, was swearing in fair and impartial jurors [from] a group “sworn by birthright to protecting the interest and life of the white.”
The state had produced three witnesses.
First was McGarrh, “a stern little man who was a member of one of Glendora’s most respected families.” McGarrh, Halberstam wrote, stuck to the same story he had told at the earlier hearings.
“He said he saw Kimball shoot the unarmed Melton. He went unshaken under cross examination. The only weakness in his story is that although Kimball had given prior warning of his intention McGarrh stayed inside the station with his shot gun.’
The next witness was John Henry Wilson, “a Negro in whom Kimball said he had a great deal of confidence. Wilson did not witness the shooting, but he damaged the self defense theory. He was standing outside the station when Kimball returned with a gun. He asked Kimball what he was going to do.
“I’m going to kill that nigger,” Kimball said. “Please, sir, don’t shoot that boy. He ain’t done nothing to you,” Wilson said. “Get back or I’ll kill you too,” said Kimball. Wilson ran to the back of the station.”
The last witness for the state, George Woodson, testified that he was staning about ten feet away from the scene and saw Kimball walk around the side of the station with a gun, and that he did not see any gun in Melton’s hand.
“The defense lacked eye witnesses and thus tried to shake the testimony of the state’s witnesses. Its witnesses came up with only minor points,” according to Halberstam.
“But more significant than their testimony were their positions—a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, and a chief of police.”
Apparently Kimball did the most damage to himself when he got on the stand, as Halberstam told it:
“[He] got up there before those twelve Mississippians and told them a story about his relations with Melton that flatly contradicts all the Mississippi mores…. Kimball said he went inside and told McGarrh that Clinton was getting pretty nasty and asked him to total up his account and he’d be back and settle up; when he returned a few minutes later someone started firing at him, hit him, and he went back to his car and got his shot gun.
“Kimball’s story would be hard for any jury to believe, because they would know…. “[You] cannot provoke a Negro attendant to talk like that no matter how much you irritate him, particularly a trusted Negro such as Clinton Melton.”
“The jury also knew that “no white peckerwood gin manager, the best friend of J. W. Milam, would let a Negro talk like that without doing a little whupping right there on the spot.”
AFTER FOUR AND one-half hours, the jurors walked in and announced their decision to acquit:
Sumner, Miss. (AP) – Elmer Otis Kimball was acquitted of murder late yesterday in the shotgun slaying of a 33-year-old Negro. “I wasn’t sure justice would be done,” said the 35-year-old white Glendora cotton gin operator, “but I should have known.” A 12-man, all-white jury, made up mostly of farmers, deliberated more than four hours before freeing Kimball.
Two witnesses testified they saw Kimball blast Clinton Melton three times with a shotgun December 3 at a Glendora service station. Witnesses said the shooting was an aftermath of an argument between Kimball and Melton over gasoline to be put into Kimball’s car. Kimball testified that Melton cursed him during the argument. Defense Atty. J. W. Kellum said Kimball fired the fatal shots in self-defense. Kimball said three shots were fired at him before he opened fire, one wounding him in the shoulder. He showed a scar and brought in a doctor who verified the gunshot wound.
But neither Lee McGarrh, white owner of the service station, not George Woodson, Negro, who said he witnessed the slaying, said they saw or heard Melton fire. No weapon was found on Melton’s body or in his car. The trial took place in the same courtroom where half-brothers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were found innocent six months ago of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Chicago Negro. Kellum was one of five defense attorneys in the Till case.
Times were now more dangerous for Mississippi’s African Americans. One white Glendora resident, asked by a reporter for his opinion of both the Till and Melton murders told him “There’s open season on the Negroes now. They’ve got no protection, and any peckerwood who wants can go out and shoot himself one.”
Clinton and Beulah Melton’s daughter never moved from the Delta. She keeps a picture of her mother who looks like she could be her twin. While she has never owned a picture of her father, Gresham said she would have liked to know him better and continues to question what happened to her mother on that frightening day.
Yet her story had a happy note. In 2003, Keith Beauchamp, a New York filmmaker, discovered a copy of an old newsreel showing the story of Clinton Melton’s murder. Beauchamp incorporated the reel into a documentary on Emmett Till, and made sure that Gresham had a copy for her family.
The following year, Beauchamp’s documentary was shown on a Chicago television station, resulting quite by chance in one of Gresham’s brothers discovering his sister. A family reunion took place that summer.
“It was joyous,” Delores Gresham said. “We talk to each other on the phone several times a week, and I’m meeting other relatives through my brother.”
(An excerpt from “Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited,” by Susan Klopfer. Copyright 2005 Susan Klopfer.)