Whenever I speak about Emmett Till and other Mississippi murders, I get interesting questions from audience members. Here are several …
First question, often asked: Is the Emmett Till story still important? Do people still care?
Emmett Till’s murder took place over 54 years ago, back in 1955, and yet we are just beginning to learn the details of the crime. Till was a young man known only by his family and friends, but the truth of his lynching remains an important key to understanding American history. Further, the truth about young Till’s murder and the truth about the murders of so many others — including President John F. Kennedy, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy — is crucial to maintaining our democracy, because in a free government … truth matters.
In each of these murders, there have been numerous threats to the uncovering and exposure of the truth. These threats have often come from within our own government, through such programs as COINTELPRO, a secretive series of covert, and often illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), officially from1956 to 1971.
While the FBI’s COINTELPRO was aimed at “investigating and disrupting dissident political organizations” around the entire country, Mississippi had its own such secret spy agency, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. This Commission spied and disrupted, with the help of the Ku Klux Klan, those people who aided in black voter registration and racial integration.
The Sovereignty Commission was formed only one year after Emmett Till’s death, the same year as COINTELPRO, because of the pressure the state was receiving from the federal government. Former FBI and military intelligence agents were hired by Mississippi and used as Commission investigators. Ironically, the very federal government that was applying pressure on Mississippi to change, was also using the FBI and COINTELPRO to disrupt many people and organizations trying to bring positive change to the state, often tagging these people as Communists or simply dangerous.
Thanks to people who care about historical truth, their research on Emmett Till, COINTELPRO and the assassinations of our country’s peace-seeking leaders continues to bring out new evidence. And as this truth becomes apparent, it serves to keep us free.
Yes, Emmett Till’s story still matters. And as the 83,000 “Emmett Till” entries listed on Google as of 11:34 p.m. September 26, 2009, attest, the Emmett Till story continues to hold an important place in history. The story of 14-year-old Emmett Till remains important and people still care. Thank God.
Q.What kind of a boy was Emmett Till?
“I would say that to me, Emmett was very ordinary. But as I look at today’s youth, I realize that Emmett was very extraordinary,” his mother once told historian Devery Anderson who interviewed Mrs. Till Mobley in 1996. She described her son as responsible and industrious, a youngster who helped her clean, cook and do laundry, recognizing the importance of his help as a single mother. Anderson’s site is at emmetttillmurder.com.
In her book, Emmett’s mother gives a further glimpse of her son, however. “Emmet was always so confident about his ability to talk his way through things that you could forget that he still had a problem talking. After he had recovered from polio as quickly as he had done, at such an early age, the doctors figured he could lick this problem [stuttering], too And we did everything we were supposed to do. The speech therapy classes had helped some, but the stutter was still apparent at eleven and then at twelve, in normal conversation, but especially when he got excited.” Later, she also terms her son as “meticulous” and “independent.”
Young Emmett had just finished the seventh grade at the all-black McCosh Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side when he went to Mississippi. He was between five-foot- four and five-foot-five and weighed 160 pounds, was physically stocky and muscular. Various authors write he was self-assured despite a speech defect–a stutter that resulted from a bout with nonparalytic polio at the age of three. Emmett was a smart dresser with a reputation as a prankster and a risk taker.
Q. What happened to Emmett Till’s father?
Louis Till, drafted in World War II, was convicted of raping two women and killing a third. He was executed by the U.S. Army, which originally told Till’s wife, Mamie, only that he had been killed due to “willful misconduct.
One Chicago woman, J. Marie Green, a military retiree who studied black history and is an independent civil rights researcher, remembers Till’s murder and has spent years investigating what happened to his father. She wrote this comment on my blog,
“Emmett Till’s murder is something one never forgets. I was born and raised in Chicago, and was about five years old when he was killed and remember when it happened and saw the Jet magazine photos, and I was scared to death, shocked really and questioned my mother who was from Greenwood, Mississippi, asking her why would two grown men would kill a child and what is a “wolf whistle”, and are these men coming after us? “She assured me that these men where not coming to get us, explained what a “wolf whistle” was and meant in relations to that, and as a side bar note, told me that I ask too many questions. (smile). But every child in our area was afraid for a long time. Over the years I have never forgotten him, and have read just about everything I have come across about him every time his name is mentioned somewhere. Just recently his name came up again, with the incident at Burr Oak Cemetery. Somehow I feel his death is not resolved.
“…Mrs. Till’s husband’s story is another whole story all by itself. Pvt. Louis Till was part of the 177th Port Company, 397th Battalion — an all-“negro” battalion — which left from a NY port and arrived in France during 1944. He was hanged by execution by the U.S. Army on July 2, 1945. by orders of General Eisenhower. Allegedly for the murder of Anna Zanchi, and the rape of Benni Lucretzia and Frieda Muri who lived in Civitavecchia, Italy, these crime supposedly occurred on June 27, 1944, shortly after he arrived, mind you!
“According to records found at The American Battle Monuments Commission, Pvt. Louis Till is buried in an unmarked, prohibited, isolated area of Oise-Aisne Cemetery in Fere-en-Tardenois, France. The military marked his personnel file and the courts-martial records “secret,” hushed it up, sent Mrs. Till a telegram, stating that her husband had died because of “misconduct,” and she never knew what happened to him until her son’s trial, when the Senators pulled some strings and contacted the military and some Staff Judge Advocate General, crossed out the word “secret” and released the information to them.
“Even after the trial of Emmett, she could never get any answers to what happened to her husband and why he was killed, this is clearly a military “railroad job,” and has been hushed up all these years for a reason, but if you would check military history during this period you will see that a lot of black men were mysteriously hung for rape of French women. “They” took racism right on with them and convinced the French that “Negroes” had a problem, too.”
Q. Why do people sometimes refer to the University of Mississippi as Ole Miss?
The University got its nickname “Ole Miss” via a contest in 1897. That same year, the student yearbook was being published for the first time. As a way to find a name for the book, a contest was held to solicit suggestions from the student body. Elma Meek, a student at the time, submitted the winning entry of Ole Miss. This name was chosen not only for the yearbook, but also became the name by which the University is now known.
Ole Miss, as used by the University, is not a substitute for “Old Mississippi.” Rather, this endearing term stands for the wife of the “Ole Massah” on a plantation (the man who enslaved and mistreated Africans).
U of Miss. publicity agents claim the name is thought of in an affectionate manner, today. To check this out, I walked around the campus one day and asked some of the black students what they thought about this nickname and its history. Most were well aware of the story and several said they were disgusted. “It’s just embarrassing,” one student said. “I wish the school would change it.”
Q. Who is your favorite Mississippi hero?
Reading The Fire Ever Burning by Constance Curry and Aaron Henry helped get me started on this journey. Henry was a true hero and someone I would have wanted to know.
Henry was a fierce champion of civil rights, a leader of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives. He is still one of the most revered civil rights leaders in Mississippi, at least by many older civil rights advocates who know their state’s history.
Henry grew up near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and later earned a degree in political science at Xavier University in New Orleans. During World War II, he served as a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army in the Pacific. After the war, Henry attended pharmacy school, and eventually returned to Clarksdale to open a corner drug store where any important civil rights and government leaders met to unite Mississippi blacks in fighting white supremacy. Sadly, the pharmacy no longer stands in Clarksdale. His home was also demolished in a fire.
There were many personal tragedies in Henry’s life as well as successes. In 1961, Henry led a highly successful boycott of stores in the Clarksdale, Mississippi, area that refused to hire black workers and discriminated against black customers. He and six others were arrested for “conspiring to withhold trade.”
These charges were eventually reversed on appeal but another charge, of sexual harassment, against Henry, soon followed came soon after. While he was fighting this case, which he eventually won, his pharmacy was firebombed and his wife, Nicole, was fired from her job as a public school teacher. Several years later, Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 after taking Henry to the airport.
For Henry, there was no such thing as a small victory and because each victory usually led to an even greater success. “I think,” Henry once said, “that every time a man stands for an ideal or speaks out against injustice, he sends out a tiny ripple of hope.”
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the number of black voters grew rapidly and as African Americans began to be elected winning elections to various local, county and statewide offices. Henry was elected to serve in the State House of Representatives in 1982, a post he held until 1996 where he continued to fight against racial injustice.
Henry introduced legislation to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state flag and continued to call for the reopening of the murder case for his old friend, Medgar Evers. Aaron Henry suffered a stroke in 1996, and died on May 19, 1997 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, just two months and five days after the murder of his friend, Cleve McDowell.
Q. Can I see a movie about Emmett Till
Yes, thanks to Keith Beauchamp, a young man who saw the photograph of Emmett Till’s brutally beaten face that ran on the cover Jet magazine and became a civil rights activist in 2004. Beauchamp directed The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till that is available on DVD. Till’s murder has yet to be solved and Beauchamp said he is committing his energy to solving this and other civil rights cold cases. We owe him our extreme thanks and appreciation for his tenacity, perseverance and dedication to the cause of civil rights.
Q. What’s happening these days in Mississippi?
Many activities are going on — some good and some disgusting. Friends of Justice is a nonprofit organization working to uphold due process for all Americans with the goal of building a public consensus behind equal access to justice and respect for human dignity in our criminal justice system, according to Executive Director, Dr. Alan Bean.
Friends of Justice formed in response to the infamous Tulia drug sting of 1999 in which 47 people, 39 of them African Americans, were rounded up based on the false testimony of an undercover agent, he explains.
The unique group emerged as a coalition of defendant’s defendants’ families and other concerned citizens who believed the defendants were being prosecuted on faulty evidence. “Because of the work of Friends of Justice, the Texas Legislature passed the Tulia Corroboration Bill, which has led to the exoneration of dozens of innocent people by raising the evidentiary standards for undercover testimony.”
Learning from their experience in Tulia, Friends of Justice started organizing across Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.
“We launch narrative-based campaigns around unfolding cases where due process has broken down, and empower affected communities to hold public officials accountable for equal justice. For more on our work, check their blog at http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/blog/
A wrongful conviction in a murder trial recently actually brought FOJ to Mississippi. In July 1996, four people were killed execution style at a Montgomery County furniture store: owner Bertha Tardy, bookkeeper Carmen Rigby, and two hired men, Bobo Stewart and Robert Golden. Golden was black, the other three victims were white. Six months later, Curtis Flowers, a young black Winona resident – who had worked three days for Bertha Tardy – was arrested and charged with the brutal murder of four innocent people.
Thirteen years, $300,000 and now six trials later, Mr. Flowers remains behind bars and during which the state has been unable to obtain a final conviction.
Dr. Bean’s group believes that the state’s theory of the murder crime accused of a Winona company’s former worker, by Flowers, “… doesn’t fit the actual evidence, and the state manufactured phony evidence by manipulating, badgering and bribing witnesses.” Details of the Curtis Flowers case are shared at the FOJ website in a story titled, “A brief primer in wrongful conviction. You can find more at http://www.friendsofjustice.com/.
A similar but unrelated ongoing case occurred three years earlier on December 24, 1993 when Scott County Sheriff’s Department arrested sisters Gladys and Jamie Scott for an armed robbery they in which they vehemently deny participation in. In 1994 they were convicted after being implicated in the crime by three young black men who confessed to the robbery in exchange of a plea bargain that gave them 10 ten months. The sisters were not offered a plea and went to trial, each receiving two life sentences for a crime that netted 11 eleven dollars where no one was injured.
Don’t think these cases happen only in Mississippi. Another comparable case involves an Illinois social justice group seeking 11,000 signatures to present a petition to Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to order DNA testing to exonerate Johnnie Lee Savory.
Convicted of double murder by an all-white jury in 1977 at the age of fourteen, Johnnie Savory served thirty years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the group asserts. Released on parole in 2006, Savory still had not been officially exonerated by fall of 2009. After his release from prison, Johnnie attended a play about Emmett Till and found himself overwhelmed with emotion as he related to the horrible fate of another innocent fourteen-year old child. Johnnie’s deep connection to Emmett was cemented when he discovered that they share the same birthday, July 25th.
Johnnie and Emmett’s cases both represent a state-sponsored denial of justice and the loss of innocence for children, for communities of color, and for our entire nation, committee members said.
“However, these stories also are a part of a collective story for change, they contribute to the struggle for justice. Emmett’s death sparked change in this nation and his mother ensured that his legacy lives on for eternity. While Emmett’s voice was silenced, the strength and courage of so many in the civil rights movement allowed for their collective voice to be heard and heeded.”
Also happening in Mississippi…
Even though the cold case is very famous, most Mississippi students have never heard of Emmett Till. And they haven’t been taught about the 1964 Freedom Summer when 1,000 volunteers swept into the state to register black voters.
Students haven’t heard of Fannie Lou Hamer or the story of Mae Bertha Carter, who defied gunfire and the loss of employment to send her children to previously all-white public schools in Drew, eventually winning a legal battle that confirmed their right to be there. “They don’t know about ordinary citizens who faced extraordinary odds to bring change,” wrote Carmen K. Sisson, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor in the October 4, 2009 edition.
“But they’re going to know all about it soon. In a groundbreaking reform — believed to be the first in the nation — Mississippi will require civil rights as part of its U.S. history curriculum. McComb schools made that move in 2006; but starting next fall, the stories of the civil rights era will be taught — and tested — in all public schools.”
This is going to be tough. But if Mississippi allows outside historians to participate and leaders refused refuse to be compromised, and if truth is the bottom line, the education program could set an example for the rest of this country.
Most states have their own civil rights histories that have not been covered. The stories are hidden and some might quite possibly just as horrid as what happened in Mississippi, especially in the western states where genocide was practiced on Native Americans and on the eastern seaboard where many wealthy families made their fortunes from the slave trade.
Even in my own (current) state of Iowa, the incarceration rate of blacks compared to the incarceration rate of whites is the highest in the nation. There is plenty of history to be researched and acted upon. Good jobs abound for citizen journalists.
Q. Why is it so important to think so much about the past?
I like to remember a quote by Winston Churchill, what he had to say about the importance of knowing our history: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
Q. Is there anything else important to know about all of this?
Unfortunately, there is something else that must be addressed. Old-fashioned Citizens Councils still meet around Mississippi and some politicians openly say it is perfectly acceptable to become members and attend meetings and special events.
When questioned about these organizations and their memberships, they slip slide away, typically answering they don’t agree with everything the councils stand for but they “do lots of good things, too.”