Clinton Melton, a family man who was not a civil rights activist, was killed while working at this former service station site in Glendora, Miss.
One month after the Milam/Bryant trial in nearby Sumner, Melton was shot to death by one of Milam’s friends who was drunk and angry because Melton put “too much gas” in his car.
Melton’s wife, Beulah, died when she reportedly drove her car off the road into a bayou while trying to gather evidence for the murder trial of the man accused of killing her husband, set one week away. Photo by Susan Klopfer.
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In observance of the 54th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955), I have been blogging my new book, Who Killed Emmett Till? Your comments and feedback have been appreciated and this final post completes the journey. By October 15, this book blog will become available as an e-book and will be made available on this site. Thanks for participating and I hope that you have enjoyed the read.
“There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.” William Hodding Carter, Jr., Mississippi newsman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for civil rights reporting
“Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son – lynched?” Mamie Bradley, mother of Emmett Till
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IN MIDSUMMER 2009, a 40-second video clip circulated on the Internet of an Iranian girl, a philosophy student named “Neda,” the Farsi word for voice, allegedly shot dead by a Basij soldier.
She was on her way to a music lesson. Her violent death came as Iran faced demonstrations in the magnitude not seen since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Throughout the world, people watched the scene of a girl, with a single bullet wound in her chest, lying on her back as her family tried to unsuccessfully save her. Blood was leaving her chest, and later flowing from her mouth and nose as her face was eventually left covered in red. In a few moments, Neda was pronounced dead.
Something close to this tragedy happened across the planet in Mississippi back in 1971 at the end of spring when a young woman was shot to death in the streets of Drew, Mississippi as her friends looked on.
Jo Etha Collier, 18, was celebrating her high school graduation, drinking a pop with friends out in front of a small grocery store, when her life ended. Like Neda, she had only been an observer of the protests and clashes going on all around her as the modern civil rights movement progressed – or tried to.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
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BY THE END of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, well over a dozen years after Brown v. the Board of Education followed by the murders of Rev. George Lee, Lamar Smith and then Emmett Till, violence was once again accelerating in Mississippi. More black people were being killed or turning up “missing” than had been in recent years.
Attempts to destroy organizations trying to stop the violence increased; the Black Panther Party and less known volunteer groups, sometimes church run, were trying to help Mississippi’s blacks either change their conditions or flee the state.
Both the Panthers and the Box Project, the later aiding sharecroppers to physically escape plantations, were perceived much like ACORN in 2009 – their efforts at community organization and related activities often misunderstood or misrepresented.
Fear of northern events such as Watts’s burning in 1965 translated to attempts at halting the Panthers, who in 1969 were quietly trying to organize college students at Delta State University in Cleveland, 17miles southwest of Drew.
Isaac Henderson Shorter of Cleveland returned home from Detroit where he had led demonstrations, hoping to galvanize Delta State students through the Black Panther organization. The Sovereignty Commission was right on it – spying on Shorter, a Delta State student, and others who had “returned from Berkeley with a stack of Black Panther newspapers.” For an agency two years away from winding down, the returning community organizers brought new life to the Commission’s investigations; current digital archives show 25 files on Shorter, alone.
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In Greenville, as the city’s famous newsman Hodding Carter, Jr. was coming to the end of his career, thirteen-year-old Flora Jean Smith was sexually assaulted and murdered on July 19, 1969. Smith was reported missing after she failed to return from a babysitting job; her body was found in a nearby lake.
A Sovereignty Commission report dated August 1 stated that “Sidney E. Taylor W/M, 36 years of age, of Greenville, a house painter” was charged with her kidnapping and murder. Ninety persons marched in memory of the young girl and in the end, Taylor served a short prison sentence before disappearing from Greenville altogether.
High school and college students increasingly involved themselves in civil rights clashes, as civil rights movement began to regroup in Mississippi after moving north at the end of Freedom Summer. Some veterans were now returning from northern cities like Detroit, Los Angeles and other boiling pots.
Few outside of Mississippi’s more rural battle zones knew what was happening in these small towns, especially in places like Drew, Ruleville, Greenville and Charleston, since reports were few and sporadic. Some news of violence and murders made it into the mainstream media while other skirmishes – from somewhat mild to death-producing – simply came and went with little recognition.
During a two-day student protest starting on May 14, 1970 at Jackson State College in the state capitol of Jackson, outside of the Delta, 20-year-old Phillip Gibbs, a junior, and James Earl Green, a Jackson bystander, were slain and several others wounded when police fired barrage of gunfire on a dormitory and a dining hall.
LATER THAT FALL, on October 20, 1970 some 125 black high school students were arrested in Charleston of Tallahatchie County and taken to the prison at Parchman, about 33 miles southwest of their school. Two others were arrested and jailed in Sumner.
The students had been marching and picketing “under the direction of the county’s NAACP director, Lucy Boyd,” also a Congressional candidate, the state’s Sovereignty Commission director W. B. Burke learned from his investigator, James Mohead.
Four days earlier, high school students started walking around the school singing freedom songs and chanting. Warned of possible arrest, they kept up the same activities, starting out fresh that Monday morning when they were once again told they could be arrested.
Mohead and Boyce differ on what happened next.
“Those under 18 years of age were returned to Charleston after records were made of names, ages, etc. and they were never [taken] beyond the records office.” The students were returned to churches in Charleston where they were released to their parents, Mohead told his boss.
But twenty-five years later, when Boyd finally saw Mohead’s report in old Sovereignty Commission files first released in 1997, she said he lied.
“The children – all of them – spent the night at Parchman in cells. The Sovereignty Commission was always twisting their facts around and this is just one example,” Boyd said.
In his version, Mohead said he “took the offense,” and contacted Clarksdale civil rights leader Aaron Henry about the incident “after hearing a rumor that Henry had been in Charleston.”
Boyd had been talking with Henry by telephone throughout the day, she countered. A pharmacist who resided and worked in Clarksdale, about 40 miles northwest of Charleston, Henry stayed close to his business phone as Boyd’s calls came in, she said.
But Mohead’s report insisted that Henry was the instigator of Charleston’s student action, having picked up the idea from “the Coffeeville action.”
Coffeeville’s African American students were being bussed to their school – the town is about 50 miles to the East of Charleston, outside of the Delta – for part of a day, and then to another school, under court order, and they were trying to get back into court “in an effort to bring a change in the procedure,” Mohead said.
Charleston school children showed great bravery after being locked up all night in Mississippi’s most notorious prison, Boyd said. Their loud screaming resulted in prison officials getting sick and tired of the noise and sending the home, confirmed Robert Keglar, a former schoolteacher in Charleston.
Keglar’s mother, Birdia, and her friend Adlena Hamlett, were killed five years earlier outside of Greenwood when their car was forced off the road as they returned from a civil rights meeting in Jacksosn. His brother, Sonny Boy, died in a fire when his home burned down, three months into his personal investigation of his mother’s death.
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JO ETHA COLLIER, a Drew High School senior, was murdered on the evening of her graduation in 1971. At approximately 9:45 p.m. on May 25, shortly after the ceremony ended, Collier was drinking a pop and talking to friends in front of a small grocery store. As a pickup truck passed by, several shots rang out and Collier was shot in the head and killed.
The well-liked student received the school’s spirit award earlier that week and was named the “Most Valuable Player in Track.” She was also awarded a basketball jacket.
Wesley Parks, 25, of Drew killed the young graduate in a murder that “seemed to have no motive,” said a sheriff’s deputy.
Parks, his brother and their nephew, Allen Wilkerson, 19, of Memphis were in the truck and all three were arrested in nearby Cleveland within three hours of the shooting. A 22-caliber pistol “with one bullet missing” was found in the car along with a 12-gauge Army issue riot gun and a 22-caliber automatic rifle, according to Sovereignty Commission reports.
At the time, others in the black community disagreed with the sheriff’s assessment, including civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer of nearby Ruleville, who said she was “convinced that Collier’s death was connected with the current voter registration campaign.”
Collier was not active with the campaign going on at the time, but visiting reporters at Collier’s funeral were reminded that black political activity in the Delta – where blacks outnumber whites – had “long met with a proportionate increase in random, almost casual, white harassment.”
FBI agents went to Drew and studied the crime, according to Sovereignty Commission reports. But all FBI records on the death of Collier, requested by this author in April 2004, were reported by the FBI as “destroyed on March 16, 2004.” No reason was given.
Police Chief J. D. Fleming of Drew had told reporters the three men involved “were very much under the influence of alcohol.” Fleming said he took Collier’s two companions to Cleveland to identify the suspect. The three men offered no resistance when arrested in Cleveland, Fleming said.
About 45 minutes before the shooting, the men were seen sitting in their truck at a service station located less than a block away from the grocery store. When a black male asked for a light, “one of the occupants of the vehicle reportedly pointed a revolver at the negro male and told him ‘I’ll put all your G.D. lights out,” the sovereignty commission investigator’s report stated.
Collier was killed by a single bullet, which hit her in the neck as she stood in front of a grocery store “in the negro section of town.” At her funeral, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, chair of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, eulogized Collier before an audience of 2,000.
“The foes of evil have robbed us of one of our most dear and talented sisters…How long will black people be mistreated in Mississippi? How long will black people be shot down in the Delta?” the SCLC leader asked those gathered in the auditorium of Drew High School.
Abernathy called for massive change that would come with black voter registrations to put blacks in office “…so that we can see that her living and dying was not in vain.”
Drew’s Mayor W. O. Williford, seated on the main stage during the rites, told a reporter he was surprised at the large turnout of blacks, and spoke of recent gains by Delta blacks: “If that many Negroes had gathered in one place when I first took office there surely would have been bloodshed.”
The atmosphere was peaceful enough that Williford quickly sent away the highway patrolmen who were there in case of an anticipated flare up. Days earlier, the mayor imposed an 8 p.m. until daylight curfew and called in the officers to help enforce it.
After the ceremony, Collier, regarded highly by teachers and friends, was buried in the all-black section of Drew’s community cemetery.
Cleve McDowell, practicing law in Jackson, returned to Drew to help keep his home town calm, and then, concerned about the community and its children, decided to make this move permanent.
Meeting with the mayor before Collier’s very public funeral, McDowell was required to pledge that no outsiders – “especially Fannie Lou Hamer” – would come into Drew and cause problems during several planned marches. Hamer was well known for her state and national activism and never met a state official that scared her away from stating her demands.
Collier’s family was extremely poor and McDowell paid all funeral costs.
McDowell requested and was granted a permit to hold peaceful daily marches in the downtown section of Drew and at the same time, the attorney was careful to praise the “swift police work” in apprehending the three men.
“Now there must be vigorous prosecution. Responsible people are angry at this senseless murder,” he told a visiting newspaper reporter.
Once back in Drew for good, McDowell ran for city council, becoming Drew’s first black assistant mayor. A Sovereignty report filed September 16, 1971 noted “Chief of Police Fleming…advised that Cleve McDowell, N/M, formerly of Drew, now of Jackson, is spending a lot of time in the Drew, Ruleville area. These visits are believed to be political, in nature.”
McDowell eased back into his birthplace. By the next year, McDowell was named to the state Penitentiary Board in July by Governor Bill Waller and was reappointed for a five-year-term in 1972. He was the first black to hold this position, until then reserved for whites.
At the end of his term, McDowell told Ron Harris of the Associated Pres he hoped his appointment helped pave the way for other African Americans, that he had “pushed hard” to get the appointment because he felt blacks needed to become involved at the decision making level.
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PROMPTED BY THE murders of Collier and others – and there were several more people killed in a short window of time –Aaron Henry telegraphed President Richard Nixon to protest the “wave of senseless killing in Mississippi of black citizens by white citizens.” Henry said it was the “third such killing in less than a week.”
“There was no provocation and no words were passed. It’s doubtful that they knew Miss Collier,” Henry told a UPI reporter. “They apparently were out to kill a black, any black.”
All three men were initially charged with murder but only Wesley Parks was tried. Charges were dropped against the other two men. Parks was sent to prison for five years, but served less than three years of his sentence.
This blatant inaction prompted Henry to question George Everett, D.A. for the three-county region. There were potential dangers from Everett’s decision to drop charges, Henry warned in a letter to the prosecutor:
“Your statement today… really pulls the rug from under those of us in the NAACP who worked so hard to prevent violent retaliation against whites by determined members of the black community. Particularly you have seriously undercut the good will efforts of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and attorney Cleve McDowell.
“There are not as many of us in the Black Community as there once were who took a forthright position condemning violence, for whatever the cause. Now there are many Blacks anxious to engage in the “eye for an eye,” “tooth for a tooth,” type of violence. Putting it another way, “white man for black man” retaliation. When announcements come out such as you issued today, [they] only give reason for those prone toward violence to exercise it. Those who once had the confidence of the community, on the sides of non-violence, are losing the confidence of the Black citizens of our communities, especially when we were the ones to caution and advise the masses to have confidence in the law or the legal system.
“You see, if a jury acquits a man who is tried, and in this case a white man for the murder of a Black citizen, then at least there has been some attempt to secure justice. But when the District Attorney pronounces that those charged will not be brought to trial, then we are almost back to where we were in the “Dred Scott,” U. S. Supreme Court decision of a hundred years ago, that established that a Black had no rights that whites were bound to respect. Of course this also meant the privilege of a white to take the life of a black with no fear of ever coming to trial, just as your announcement today. Once the pent up violence that exists in many members of the Black Community begins to explode, then the cry of the white community is going to be a call for “peace.” …You can help us in our position, or render us useless, and those prone toward violence will be in the position of advising our people what steps to take next…. Think it over!”
(The above quote from Henry was taken from a letter signed by Henry and received into state archives in 2003 for “processing.” As of August 2009, this letter and all other Tougaloo College records of Aaron Henry, including the telegraph to President Nixon that were presented to the William F. Winters Archives, were “not available” for viewing. The letter was found buried in papers held by the college archives before the school donated Henry’s paper to the state institution. It will be interesting to see if the letter makes it to the “processed” bin.)
One older Drew resident, asking to remain anonymous, said in a 2004 interview that random shootings frequently took place in the community for years, and sometimes still do. “This was happening everywhere in the Delta, and no one would do anything about it. Whites rode around on our side of town and shot at black people. There was no reason for it, except they were usually drinking.”
Another version of Jo Etha Collier story that still lingers around the small Sunflower County town is that some students had reported another person was riding in the car – a teacher. This person was reportedly harassed so much by students in the years following Collier’s murder that he finally left to teach in a private, segregated academy.
In neighboring Tallahatchie County, a murder took place two days before Collier was killed, according to Henry’s records. On May 23, 1971 veteran Eddie McClinton was allegedly killed by a white “night marshal” in Sumner in a fight at a pop machine.
Sovereignty Commission investigator Mohead learned from county deputy sheriff Downs, doubling as the town marshal, that McClinton was shot three times and killed by a white outside of Sumner.
Mohead reported that McClinton was observed by Sumner Night Marshal Tom Trannam “kicking and beating on a change machine” at a self-service gas station. When Trannam intervened, McClinton threatened to kill him, Downs told Mohead.
“McClinton started for Trannam, in a threatening manner, Trannam fired one shot to the right of McClinton attempting to stop him. McClinton continued to advance and told Trannam, ‘If you don’t kill me, you white S.O.B., I’m going to kill you.’ At this time, Trannam shot McClinton once in the arm and once in the chest with a 45 cal. pistol,” Mohead’s report stated.
No hearing or coroner’s inquest was held, and Downs said he would get back to Mohead after he conferred with Trannam “and the two negro witnesses.”
During the week of November 1, 1971 Sovereignty Commission investigator Fulton Tutor reported from Pontotoc, north of Jackson, where the grand jury reported out “without returning an indictment against Jake Denton, W /M, who shot ‘the Negro’ [Edger Higginbottom] a few months ago in Ecru. There is a possibility of some reaction from the black community over this.”
Tutor did not name the victim in his report. Also during the week, Tutor “did some checking on white voters to see if all were out to vote.” In Holly Springs, Tutor learned from Mayor Coopwood that “for the first time the whites all worked together in this election and this really paid off, as the blacks only won the Justice of the Peace post.”
AS STATE NAACP president, Henry often received letters like one dated December 21, 1972 from a resident of Jonesboro, Arkansas regarding her missing brother, Sid Harrison of Holcomb in Carroll County.
In late October 1972, Harrison disappeared from his family with no trace of him or his automobile. “Since several of Mr. Harrison’s relatives believe that he has been murdered in the manner of the three civil rights workers of 1964 near Philadelphia… along with [his] relatives appreciate…your immediate cooperation.”
Like so many other Mississippi stories, this man’s disappearance appears to have faded into history. No other related letters or reports could be found in Henry’s archival papers at Tougaloo.
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In April of 1972, Mississippi lost its most famous journalists to natural death after a series of health problems, Hodding Carter Jr., the courageous editor of the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, Mississippi’s most liberal newspaper during the Civil Rights era, died at 65 of a heart attack during a workout at an athletic club in Greenville.
“He knew his enemies’ virtues and would recite them, and his favorite retort to the righteously angry was, ‘Yes, but …’ He told great stories, full of villains and heroes and morals, stories for passing on. We will remember,” wrote his son, Philip, in an editorial for his father’s newspaper. Hodding Carter II was already serving as the newspaper’s publisher but the family sold the publication soon after his father’s death.
In May of 1973, Mrs. Daisy Savage and her 11-year-old grandson of Hollandale, were murdered, probably by Klansmen. Charles Sudduth, a Deltan who researches and writes about the Mississippi Klan, believes that Daisy Savage had provided room for the two white civil rights workers assigned to the small town near Belzoni in 1964.
“What I heard was that [a city official] and a party of 4 to 20 Klansmen stoned them to death. I also heard that at least one black person witnessed her killing and that person is said to still be alive. That was also confirmed to me by a black civil rights attorney who was originally from Hollandale, Jesse Pennington.”
The killing may have taken place in south Washington County, near or around the Yazoo Wildlife Refuge. “If it in fact this [is true], then Federal authorities have jurisdiction in the matter…On the other hand, I also heard [the murders] took place right at the county line between Issaquena and Washington County, so this might indicate a still unresolved question of jurisdiction.”
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Message appearing on a Clarksdale Internet discussion group
I lived in Clarksdale from 1971 to 1989 and am searching to find archived obituaries or newspaper articles on deceased family members. My mother, Dorothy Sykes was murdered on May 5, 1977 and her body was found in a ditch just outside of the Clarksdale area. She had seven bullet wounds to the head. I do recall that there was a typo in the spelling of my mother’s last name in the obituary. Her address was 324 Bolivar Street.
Also, my aunt, Lillie Mae Bumpers, was killed and her body was found in Moon Lake around June to September 1982. Rescue workers were searching for the body of a couple that were suspected to have drowned in a fishing boat and they discovered her body during the search. The funeral home that handled my mother’s body was Delta Burial Funeral Home and I think that Smith Funeral Home handled my aunt’s body.
I now living in * * * but would be more than happy to come and pick up any material that you may be able to provide for me. If there is a cost for obtaining this information, please let me know as well. Thank you for your time. [At her request, the message remains anonymous.]
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AARON HENRY NEVER gave up trying to stop the bloodshed; records show he met with Governor Cliff Finch and his Director of Minority Affairs, R. L. Bolden on September 16, 1976, to “acquaint and remind them of the upsurge in racism that is pervading Mississippi, with its most pronounced manifestation being in the area of police brutality.”
The two most recent worst acts of this kind, Henry stated, were the “apparent lynching” of sixteen-year-old James Calhoun in the Bolivar-Sunflower area and the killing of a young black by a highway patrolman in Sturgis, Mississippi. The Sovereignty Commission was not above harassing Henry and there would be payback for these and other complaints made to officials outside of the state.
According to papers turned over to the Winters Archives [but not available for re-viewing], the day after meeting with the two Mississippi officials, Henry spent the following day in Oxford and then attended a meeting on the Gulf Coast with Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Saturday was filled with Democratic Party Administrative Committee meetings in Jackson and with leaders of the Mississippi Carter-Mondale campaign, Head Start meetings, and dinner with friends, running until 10 p.m. that evening.
Henry returned to his hotel room but was awakened shortly after midnight with a call “informing me that a black youth was being beaten by the police in the park across from Central High School” a few blocks from the hotel. Deciding to observe the action, he dressed and walked around to the park where he saw two young men sitting on a park bench at the park’s entry.
The NAACP director asked if they had seen a black youth being beaten by the police and both replied they had not. Henry took their names – David Bronstein and Isom Herron – and then saw a man approaching him with handcuffs in one hand and a portable radio in the other.
Henry asked the officer about the beating of a young black man and was told that he was “sticking my nose into too much in police business.” Upon the officer’s suggestion, they both headed back to the hotel “to talk” but the officer became “suddenly angry” and asserted Henry was interfering with the legal activity of a police officer.
Henry was placed under arrest, while reminding the officer that he had “… been in jails before, larger than the ones in Jackson.” Henry was taken to the station and charged with disorderly conduct with a bond set at $500. A court appearance was set for the following Monday; this was a resurgence of racism, Henry later wrote:
“We are in the process now of formulating plans to challenge this resurgence of racism. Some personalities in Mississippi still feel that the repressive tactics of the 1960s will still work. Although the Sovereignty Commission no longer legally exists, its tactics are forever before us. The judgments against the NAACP by two recent Mississippi judges, the attacks upon black and white personalities in this rebirth of vicious Dirty Tricks will live for a while, but in a short time they too will pass away. Although there are some Mississippians unhappy about the progress of the Black and White Community away from racism, the reality of the uniting of the Democratic Party with blacks and whites equally involved, is more progress than some, perhaps many, would like to see. Nevertheless, it is for real.”
ON MARCH 14, 1977, FANNIE Lou Hamer died penniless in Mound Bayou. Owen Brooks and Charles McLaurin made the arrangements for her funeral and raised the funds to pay for it. Her last years were spent at home in Ruleville, where she raised thousands of dollars to feed displaced farm laborers through her Freedom Farm Cooperative and pig bank.
Mrs. Hamer also raised funds for housing and for the day care center that was named for her. She had continued as an activist, speaking against the Vietnam War and abuses in the state’s poverty and Medicaid programs. In her final years, Hamer was in pain as she suffered from breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; she had never totally recovered from the beating she received by a policeman in Winona, said her friend, Margaret Block. “Everyone said she died of diabetes and cancer, but she died from those beatings.”
Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Aaron Henry, and Hodding Carter II spoke of her contributions as well as Andrew Young, the principal speaker, who praised Mrs. Hamer as “a woman who literally helped turn this nation around.”
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Margaret Block’s brother, Samuel Block, a SNC field secretary who fought for voting rights in the Delta and elsewhere, did not escape chaos once he left Mississippi. After moving to California, where he remained a political activist, Block ended up serving time in federal prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.
“Sam had been set up for an embezzlement charge and for “running guns to the Contras. My brother was very bright, but not stupid. And he would never have committed such crimes.” Block was in prison for five years until “he finally got out on parole and appeals.”
His alleged crime took place in California, but the trial ended up in federal court in Oxford, Mississippi, Margaret Block said. “I’ve never figured out why this happened. But I’ll never forget at sentencing when the judge told him, ‘We finally got your smart as now. I’ve waited a long time.”
Samuel Block, born in 1939, died on April 13, 2000 in his Los Angeles apartment at the age of 60. “There was never an inquest; no coroner pronounced him dead, and I still have questions,” Margaret Block said. “He had not been ill.
“I do know that someone removed the hard drive to his computer and took his papers; that apparently happened during his funeral.” Margaret Block said that she learned from her brother’s daughter that the coroner was never called to pronounce her brother dead and that his death certificate was not signed as a result until two weeks later, after an autopsy was performed.
“The police and medics had called the funeral home and took him there directly. This held up the funeral service for two weeks because the coroner finally was able to do an autopsy. The results were termed inconclusive because his body had been embalmed.”
Sam Block was scheduled to keynote a civil rights conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of SNC at Shaw University in North Carolina. “He did not show up and people began to worry. I don’t know exactly what happened next but that his daughter was called. She went to his apartment and found him dead.”
Sam Block was an early target of those who opposed the civil rights movement, as one of the first early voting rights advocates from Mississippi allowed to move into a SNCC leadership role as the organization was picking up speed. In the 1960s, Block had served as point man for voter registration effort in Greenwood a key battleground, and headquarters of the white Citizens Councils.
In his first six months working Greenwood, the violent response of citizen council members and others made the job nearly impossible. Look magazine reported in 1963 that Block had signed up only five black voters.
James Travis of Greenwood, who was shot in the head and neck as he drove a car with several SNCC colleagues in 1963 – and survived – once called his old friend Block “very smart” and “fearless.” Travis died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
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Who Killed Emmett Till?
At about 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955 two white men from the Mississippi Delta kidnapped and killed a 14-year-old black male who was visiting his mother’s relatives in Money.
His mother should not have sent him there; Mississippi was a powder keg after the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board of Education decision. Voting rights and school integration were coming to a head.
In late spring, just three months before Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was killed, Reverend George Lee, a grocery owner and NAACP field worker in Belzoni was shot and killed at point blank range while driving in his car after voting.
A few weeks later in Brookhaven, Lamar Smith, another black man, was shot and killed in front of the county courthouse, in broad daylight and in front of witnesses, after casting his vote.
Till was just a kid, a black kid from Chicago who had limited ideas about racial politics or an old man called Jim Crow. His mother had given his some warning, based on her experiences living there as a young girl but her stern talk didn’t sink in. As Nettie Davis of Drew said, “It wasn’t fair. He was just a kid and he didn’t know the rules.”
Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam, killed him for sure. They kidnapped Till from his uncle’s Mose Wright’s home in Money, drove him to a small tool shed outside of Drew, about 30 miles away, where they tortured and killed him.
They drove his body back over to Glendora, just outside of Money, and dumped it into the Tallahatchie River. The next day, both men were arrested on kidnapping charges and held in jail without bond. Apparently they hadn’t worried much about getting caught, because they didn’t weight his body down and it floated to the service three days later; a fisherman found it tied to a gin fan in a few feet of water.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who died years later in 2003, urged family members with strong union ties to jump in and try to find her son. Even Mayor Richard Daley got involved. When she learned her son was dead, she decided the whole world should know what happened to Emmett and held an open-casket funeral in Chicago, allowing a photograph of her son’s disfigured face appear in Jet Magazine.
Mississippi’s largest newspaper, The Jackson Daily News, deemed the murder “brutal” and “senseless,” but complained that the NAACP was arousing “hatred and fear” by calling Till’s murder a lynching.
Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama saw the picture in the newspaper and decided there would never be a better time to take a stand, something she had been planning to do all along but hadn’t set a date.
Even after the murder trial ended in September, both men confessed their crime to a national magazine’s reporter after an all-white 12-man jury found them innocent in just 67 minutes.
Was Bryant’s wife involved? Was she with them on that dark night outside of Mose Wright’s home? Did she point out young Emmett as the kid who embarrassed her in their small family grocery store”
Carolyn Bryant Donham, now an old woman – once a high school beauty queen – was still residing in Greenwood of LeFlore County in the fall of 2009. She has to know what happened and could certainly tell the truth before she dies, if she wanted to.
In May of 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the Emmett Till case after young filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp produced a documentary articulating the madness of racism in the South of the 1950s.
Three years passed before a LeFlore County Grand Jury decided not to prefer charges against Carolyn Bryant Donham and said no others were involved. The black prosecutor wasn’t much help, refusing assistance from the FBI. Once again, the crime is being reconsidered for opening.
It was not until October 7th, 2008 that the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was actually signed into law by President George Bush. This legislation provides the Justice Department with additional money and resources to investigate unsolved murders committed during the Civil Rights era. While 422 members of Congress voted in favor of the bill, two voted against it, Rep. Ron Paul and Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. In the Senate, it had been blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn who finally ended his opposition, after much public criticism. On September 24, 2008, the full Senate passed the Till bill by voice vote after Senator Coburn lifted his hold.
Putting aside that money is finally available to investigate this cold case and others, it still might fall to the former wife of a dead grocer to help put the Emmett Till case to rest.
Most familiar with Till’s murder believe that Donham was probably sitting inside the truck that early August morning in Money, waiting to identify Emmett Till when her husband shined a light in the young man’s face, asking her if this was the right person, the young man who’d embarrassed her in his store.
She might cough up the truth some day, but probably she won’t.
At least not until she finishes writing her own account for an unidentified publishing house.
Rumor has it that Carolyn Bryant Donham’s book will be hitting the shelves any day.
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On August 13, 1993 Erle Johnston, former Sovereignty Commission director and the most powerful to ever hold the position, sat down for an oral history interview with Yasuhiro Katagiri, a Fulbright scholar from Japan studying at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Johnston waxed philosophic of his days growing up in Grenada and about the state spy organization he headed for five years – from 1963 to 1968 – giving a unique look into his own life and into the agency that served as Mississippi’s “all-seeing eyes” in the modern Civil Rights Movement.
“I remember growing up…in a segregated town. I thought nothing about it. The town built a swimming pool. It was for whites only. Blacks never even tried to get in it.”
“The picture show – blacks went upstairs and whites went downstairs. Nobody objected to it. So, we were always under the impression that they were satisfied with the relationship because – and this is the main reason – because never in my town of Grenada where I grew up, did a black family go hungry or a black family needed help that there wasn’t white people that did it for them.”
THE “GRAND IDEA,” Johnston told Katagiri “…was that we could turn the Sovereignty Commission into a big public relations agency…in order to try to project Mississippi outside the state as a good place to be, as a good place to work, as a good place to settle down.”
“Of course we recognized that one civil rights murder was worse than a hundred blacks getting Ph.D. degrees, you know. But the idea was that we could try as much as we could to overcome the attitude outside Mississippi that we were a lawless state as far as race was concerned.
“We never got anywhere with it.”
But then came the summer of 1964. Johnston recounted Mississippi’s reaction to Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project), a campaign launched that June to attempt to register as many African American voters as possible in Mississippi, which up to that time had almost totally excluded black voters, despite the efforts of black Mississippians like Sam and Margaret Block, Jimmy Travis, Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others.
The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition pulled basically together by Henry of four established civil rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with SNCC playing the lead role.
Johnston probably never knew what hit him and the state of Mississippi when the project opened its doors. Even Bob Dylan came to Drew, where he taught little black kids how to sing folk songs, said Margaret Block.
“All these invading people from around the country came in and upset
Mississippi,” the former Sovereignty Commission director told the historian.
“They went around dressed slovenly and long hair and fingernails … always confronting people and creating riots. The governor had to get the highway patrol increased to take care of [them].
“Had that not happened [Gov.] Paul Johnson would have had Mississippi sailing right on into the twentieth century.”
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“Who killed Emmett Till?”
Does anyone still care? His murder took place over 54 years ago, back in 1955. And he wasn’t even a civil rights volunteer.
Apparently people are still asking this question; on Google, some 83,000 entries were listed as of 11:34 p.m., Sept. 26, 2009.
Looks like they still care.