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From the Land of Emmett Till: Review of Jackson, Mississippi (John R. Salter, Jr.)

Real History – You Know It When You Read It

(Jackson, Mississippi. An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism. John R. Salter, Jr. First copyright date, 1979. Introduction 2011 by John Hunter Gray. Nonfiction. History of the Jackson, Mississippi modern civil rights movement. Published by the University of Nebraska Press, bisonbooks.com. First published by Exposition Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-3808-4. US $18.95.)

By Susan Klopfer, author of Who Killed Emmett Till? and Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.

Summary: Above all, Jackson, Mississippi is an organizer’s book; it was written by a sociologist participant observer and centers on the development and life of the Jackson modern civil rights movement. (The person who wrote this book was there!) Today as we listen to news reports on the Occupation Wall Street protest, covered by Amy Goodman and a few other good reporters, while following along on Twitter and Facebook, this book is a critical read for those who want to learn how effective protest really works. Author and sociologist, John Salter, is an experienced and successful advocate and organizer who knows from the bottom of his soul how to agitate for social justice. Salter has been doing this since the mid-1950s (around the time of the murder of Emmett Till). This newest work introduces critical autobiographical material, particularly on the personal factors that initially led to his embracing of social protest and updates the flow of events since his first book that appeared thirty-one years ago when he was living on the Navajo Nation, outside of Gallup, New Mexico. He shares his knowledge and ever-growing philosophies from his present point of residence in the mountains of eastern Idaho.
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SOME PEOPLE IN life, you just know. Even if you really do not know them in person, and probably could not pick him or her out in a police line-up, there is a spark, a kindred spirit that flows between the both of you when you share a common passion. John R. Salter Jr., a brave and courageous American Indian who lives high in the mountains over Pocatello, Idaho, and I have this wonderful type of relationship, communicating solely via email over the past eight years regarding Mississippi’s civil rights history. Ironically, we also have some interesting geographical connections, linking us individually to various communities in Mississippi, Iowa and New Mexico, all places where we have each spent time in our personal and professional lives.

Salter, who typically identifies himself as Hunter Gray or Hunter Bear, owing to his Native American origins, impresses most who know him as an amazing individual – and I can support this, even if I have never talked to him in person, because of the intriguing keyboard conversations we have engaged in on the Internet. Thank God for email and blogging! I first “met” John while researching the Mississippi modern civil rights movement and after reading his first book that he wrote in 1979 about the Jackson movement, in particular. The authenticity of his work is what struck me, because Salter is an academic sociologist who was actually there, on the front lines, giving him the ability to weave the story so accurately and with such passionate detail. Just as soon as I opened his book back in 2003 and started reading the foreword, I knew that I was hooked, and could not put this book down until I finished the last page. Then, I contacted him via email. Salter later contributed a warm piece on Medgar Evers for the book that I was writing about the Mississippi Delta.

Salter’s Jackson, Mississippi carries on the author’s dedication to giving readers a fierce and passionate retelling of exactly what happened during this bloody cultural revolution of the Deep South in the 1960s, an intriguing period of history that brought together some of the most brilliant and brave Americans, well-known civil rights icons, such as Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., or quieter people who played key, critical roles including Aaron Henry, Rev. Ed King, Charles McDew, Colia and Lewis Liddel, and Bill Higgs. Salter personally knew and worked with all of these and other activists who valiantly sought change.

Salter was right there, on one of the major civil rights firing lines, employed as a professor by Tougaloo Southern Christian College, the private and almost entirely African American school just north of the state capital, an institution with its own significant, historical past. At Tougaloo, the sociologist advised the North Jackson NAACP Youth Council, a post that grew into his impassioned involvement in the Jackson movement, not surprising, since activism and leadership are woven into Salter’s genetic makeup, coming from generations of social and political activism on both sides of his family. Salter further has the special ability to tell these critical stories so utterly well because he is a social scientist and in this case, he was a participant observer; his observations checkmate those of us who write of this period but must rely solely upon the words of others.

Forget the movies. Forget The Help. The civil rights movement in those years cannot be described as some comfortable, charming time when black house cleaners and white upper social class women worked together to harbinger change, as Hollywood would have paying moviegoers believe. It was not a feel-good time, but was a period of real life struggle when kind, caring and courageous people were hurt badly or even killed as they fought to abolish Jim Crow via demonstrations, boycotts and other hugely, frightening activities. People who tried to force change were not simply arrested and let out on bond, like today’s Wall Street Occupied activists – and this statement is not casually made to downplay, in any way, the brave activities of today’s protesters. However, an arrest in Mississippi of the Deep South, in those years past, could result in a brutal death in an isolated jail cell or prison cell, with the arrestee never to be seen again.

Salter was a frequent target of Mississippi’s state-run Sovereignty Commission, a secret state police force operating from 1956 to 1977 whose function was to suppress the civil rights movement and maintain segregation. The commission kept files, harassed and branded many as communist infiltrators, including Salter, via agents who were retired FBI, CIA and military intelligence. No one was safe in Mississippi, especially someone like Salter with his wide influence and knowledge to make change happen. (You can see examples of files kept on Salter by this agency on my Mississippi Sovereignty Commission blog.)

All of Mississippi’s modern civil rights movement, including the activities in Jackson, featured some of the bloodiest resistance encountered throughout the entire movement, led up by “lawmen,” hoodlums, politicians and vigilantes who might or might not have belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Salter’s book gives a vivid portrayal of Mississippi in those years; his work is a testament to the brilliant, dangerous, and historic actions of civil rights activists witnessed (and and often led) by this sociologist/activist/advisor.

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Salter had to have known back in 1961, when first coming into Mississippi, the state was a powder keg. Six years earlier, following the United States Supreme Court’s 1955 decision on speeding up the integration of public schools, Brown II, there were numerous violent incidents and murders reflecting Mississippi’s outrage over the court’s audacity to demand the state immediately desegregate. The modern civil rights movement that spread throughout the entire country was in fact sparked by an incident in the Mississippi Delta, a region north of Jackson, after the brutal August murder of a young Chicago 14-year-old, Emmett Till, who at the time was visiting relatives in the in the tiny cotton hamlet of Money.

Young Till, known to be a prankster, was not used to the severity of Mississippi’s Jim Crow violations and playfully flirted with the wife of a white storeowner, Carolyn Bryant. Her husband was out of town, but when he returned home, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam, arrived at Till’s great-uncle’s house where they questioned him about the incident, and then took Till to a barn in Sunflower County, outside of Drew, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, across the river from the small town of Glendora. They weighted Till’s body with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Till’s body floated to the top and was discovered and retrieved from the river three days after the murder.

Till’s body was returned to Chicago by train (despite an attempt by local officials to bury him in Mississippi) where his mother insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket to show the world the brutality of the killing. Tens of thousands attended this funeral or viewed his casket and images of his mutilated body were published in black magazines in the United States and in newspapers read around the world, rallying popular black and white support and sympathy across the U.S.

Till’s murder was a tipping point for international exposure of America’s dirty little secret that had been with this country since Day One. Intense examination focused on the condition of civil rights in Mississippi, as reactions from newspapers in major international cities and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and socialist publications were very critical of American society. Further coming to the aid of Mrs. Till were heads of major labor unions and the NAACP. The trial also attracted a vast amount of world-wide press attention to the fall trial taking place in a small county courthouse based in Sumner, where Bryant and Milam were quickly acquitted of Till’s kidnapping and murder. Several months later, protected by double jeopardy, the two men were paid after admitting to killing Till in a national magazine interview.

Till’s murder has become noted as one of the leading events that motivated the modern African-American Civil Rights Movement. Mrs. Till and Rosa Parks spoke together on several occasions before and after the murder and trial. Later, Parks wrote that she knew her time to make a move (to sit at the front of a Montgomery city bus), had finally arrived; she had earlier considered the act of civil disobedience but decided to go ahead after the murder of Till and the acquittal of the men who killed him.

When I moved to the Mississippi Delta in 2004, problems with the 1955 trial leading to Bryant’s and Milam’s acquittals led to the official reopening of the case by the United States Department of Justice, 49 years after the fact. Stories surrounding Emmett Till’s life and death remain in the ether as historians recount events leading to the birth of this modern civil rights movement in the United States.
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The author shares his heart and soul, and through his special encouragement makes Jackson, Mississippi a critical read for those who truly want to affect change. Just listen to his words: “An effective organizer seeks to get grassroots people together – and does; develops ongoing and democratic local leadership; deals effectively with grievances and individual and family concerns; works with the people to achieve basic organizational goals and develop new ones; and builds a sense of the New World To Come Over the Mountains Yonder” – and how all of that relates to the shorter-term steps. An effective organizer has to be a person of integrity, courage, commitment, and a person of solidarity and sacrifice. The satisfactions are enormous.”
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Susan Klopfer’s newest book, Unbeknownst, “very loosely based” on the murder of a Mississippi Delta civil rights lawyer who participated in the modern civil rights movement, is set for publication in March of 2012.