The Modern Civil Rights Movement in America (It Just Keeps Rollin’ Along)

The late Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Miss. was known for her soul-filled 
singing and civil rights activism.
Only several weeks ago, the nation was talking about the murder of Emmett Till, an event that is some 50-plus years postmortem. Why so? While late last August was the 56th anniversary of Till’s brutal death in 1955, very recently, Till’s story has reappeared as national and international reporters, civil rights observers and historians link this Mississippi lynching to the recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
Was Emmett Till just a kid from Chicago who went to Mississippi, got into trouble, and because of a Jim Crow violation, was killed by two white men? Or is there more to the story? Does his murder compare to the killing of Martin, who was not lynched in the Deep South? If so, how?
Back in 1955 when Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched, local police acted quickly, the FBI came into Mississippi fast at the request of the Jackson NAACP coordinator, Medgar Evers, and even a large labor union from Chicago paid pilots to fly over the affected Delta region within a day of the event. The two murderers were quickly caught and arrested, and taken to trial in less than a month.
Once Rosa Parks reacted to the verdict of not guilty by taking her place at the front of  a Montgomer , Alabama city busy, after the two men who killed Till were set free, Emmett Till’s murder became the spark that lit the modern civil rights movement.
Considering what has taken place in Florida in the just past two months, and what occurred back then, so much for anyone who might be thinking that “things” have been getting better since the Jim Crow days and the murder of Till.
This country’s entire civil rights movement, in fact, has been going on for a very long time (since the first enslaved person arrived) and has many more miles to go…
Nevertheless, consider Emmett Till and why his slaying remains important.
1)      Emmett Till’s murder, first of all, represents the unofficial start of the modern civil rights movement.
Emmett Till’s murder resulted in a spark of indignation that ignited protests around the world. Think about it – a 14-year-old out-of-state visitor’s murder actually set off a worldwide uproar and cast a world spotlight on Mississippi’s (and to some degree, this entire country’s racism). Through constant news coverage and oral telling of the story, Emmett Till’s murder soon began to represent the total lack of justice for blacks in the South.
2)      Emmett Till’s murder ignited people to action – many of whom, until then, had been safely sitting on the civil rights sidelines.
The Chicago Defender in 1955 urged readers to react to the acquittal of Till’s murderers by voting in large numbers, resulting in more awareness of the difficulties that had to be overcome to register and vote. Eight years later, in 1963, Sunflower County resident Fannie Lou Hamer, herself a sharecropper, was jailed and beaten for attempting to register to vote. The next year, she led a massive voter registration drive in the Delta region. Hamer knew the story of Emmett Till, quite well, because it happened near her Ruleville home. She was also raised with the story of an earlier murder in 1917, of a Drew sharecropper who was killed in a frenzy of gunfire, the same town near where Till was taken and beaten. A lynch mob of over 1,000 people tracked down Joe Pullen, and his murder was covered by the national press from coast to coast, a first for such events in Mississippi or in the U.S.
IN THE SMALL COTTON TOWN OF DREW, Mississippi the heart of the Mississippi Delta and birthplace of Archie Manning, some black elders still talk about a story passed down by their parents and relatives focusing on a 1923 gunfight raging into the early morning hours of December 15 between Joe Pullen, a tenant farmer and WWI veteran, and plantation manager W.T. Saunders.

The fight would turn out to be a watershed event in U.S. history, and a significant event in the second state of America’s civil rights movement.

Pullen shot and killed Saunders during an argument over money and then Pullen’s own life ended in a ditch at the edge of Drew after he was shot following an all-night gun battle.

The small town had buzzed with rumors that several dozen posse members were killed and possibly hundreds wounded before Pullen was taken down by machine gunners brought in from Clarksdale; some older Drew residents maintain that for years after the gunfight, a good number of people were using canes and displaying other signs of injuries received during the gun battle.

There are several versions of the Joe Pullen story, both written and spoken. In one account, nearly one thousand white men searched the swamps around Drew to find Pullen. The tenant farmer is said to have killed 4, 17 or 19 whites and wounded 8, 38 or 40 before he was machine gunned down. He either died immediately or was dragged through the streets and then killed. 

Local news accounts of this event were few. The weekly Indianola newspaper carried one small paragraph on December 20, 1923 reporting that: “J. L. Doggett of Clarksdale and Kenneth Blackwood of Drew, posse men wounded Friday by negro, Joe Pullen, are reported as improving rapidly as could be expected.” 

Associated Press reports offered more —

Four men lost their lives in a spectacular gun battle which raged until 1 o’clock this morning between Joe Pullen, Negro tenant farmer, and a posse of several hundred men in the swamps of the Mississippi delta near Drew. Nine other wounded three probably fatally. Pullen was finally captured when four members of the posse stormed the drainage ditch in which he was entrenched. The Negro died an hour later from bullet wounds. The trouble started when Pullen’s employer came to his house to collect a debt.

Fannie Lou Hamer, well-known civil rights activist from Ruleville, often talked about the shoot-out that occurred when she was a child. Hamer said that Pullen’s body was dragged into town and that people cut off body parts to keep as souvenirs. “Mississippi was a quiet place for a long time [afterwards].” 

While local press claimed that four white men had died “in defense of law and order,” Mrs. Hamer learned that Pullen had killed thirteen white men and wounded twenty-six others before dying. 

Sociologist L. C. Dorsey, Ph.D. remembered how as a young child living on a Sunflower County plantation between Ruleville and Drew she heard from her father and relatives the story of Pullen. Dorsey said that her own father often did not receive the money due him as a sharecropper, and Dorsey believed the Pullen incident had much to do with his fear of questioning “the man” over money he was owed.

Pullen’s family protested to the President [Calvin Coolidge] who sent an investigative team “because the man had been in the service, and that was what his family talked about, that this man had served his country and this is how he was treated. He had done nothing wrong and had been killed for trying to defend himself against the crew,” Dorsey said.

Alabama historian, Nan Woodruff, author of American Congo, adds to the story that Sanders may have offered Pullen $150 to recruit families to work on the plantation, and when Pullen kept the money without providing the service, the fight began.


Woodruff terms Pullen’s gunfight another “watershed event” “much like the Elaine Massacre [Arkansas, 1919] as blacks challenged the structure of white supremacy throughout the 1920s. 

“Black people with guns had always threatened planter authority, particularly when disputes
arose over crop contracts or merchant bills. Despite the threat of terror, black sharecroppers and laborers fought back when their lives were on the line, even if such actions resulted in their deaths.”

Woodruff and other historians write that many Southern black people had always carried guns for hunting and self-protection, but the frequency of armed confrontations between planters and croppers, based on the frequency of reporting, may have increased in the decade following World War I. 

THE RULING WHITE Delta families would keep their immense social, economic and political power; the planters’ bloc maintaining its supremacy or hegemony through an efficient capitalist economy rooted in black labor manipulation. Schooling and marriage built strong family alliances, and these white coalitions, much like Mafioso, expanded into local economies, from ownership and operation of cotton gins, to real estate, and banking.

Mississippi white planters simply ran all of Mississippi.

3)      The Civil Rights Act of 1957, primarily a voting rights bill proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower, was the first civil rights legislation enacted by Congress in the United States since Reconstruction and Till’s death clearly influenced this legislation.
Before 1954, only 265 black people were registered to vote in the Mississippi Delta although they represented 41% of the population. The summer that Emmett Till was killed, following Brown II, no blacks were registered in the Delta. Volunteers working during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 registered 63,000 black voters and they were required to form their own political party because they were forbidden from joining the established parties in Mississippi.
4)      Till’s murder shook the foundations of Mississippi, both black and white—with the white community because it had become nationally publicized, with blacks, because it said not even a child was safe from racism and bigotry and death.
We know this event had impact. The NAACP, for instance, asked Mamie Till Bradley to tour the country relating the events of her son’s life, death, and the trial of his murderers. It was one of the most successful fundraising campaigns the NAACP experienced.
5)      Till’s death has been formally reported to be the start of what has been called the “Negro revolt” and Till has been called by a major black historian, Weems, as the “sacrificial lamb” for civil rights.
·         Post WWII civil rights leader and NAACP operative Amzie Moore who lived in the Delta near the site of Till’s murder, believed Till’s murder initiated the modern Civil Rights Movement, at the very least in Mississippi.
·         The 1987 14-hour Emmy award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize that gives the first major introduction of critical actors and events of the Civil Rights Movement begins with the murder of Emmett Till.
·         In Mississippi, Emmett Till’s murder resulted in more regional and state news coverage and examination. From this time on, far more racial incidents anywhere in the state were spotlighted and magnified, not necessarily fairly, but still reported. Journalist Hodding Carter, Jr. of Greenville, well known outside of Mississippi as a progressive journalist who attempted to help the rest of the country understand segregation and the South, wrote early about Till, asserting those guilty of “this savage crime” should be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
White people in Mississippi began coming up quickly with justifications, such as Till being like his father who was put to death by the U.S. military for raping a woman overseas. There is now historical argument over what really took place to Louis Till – since a number of black soldiers met this fate as well, under the judicial leadership of Judge Leon Jawarski.
6)      This verdict indicated an end to the Southern system of noblesse oblige.
The misplaced trust and faith that many blacks had in the white power structure started to decline.
7)      The revolt officially began on December 1, 1955, with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.
While so many white people are still just hearing this story today, especially in the north, it was having an immediate and enormous impact in the black community throughout the country. In Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking a yearlong well-organized grassroots boycott of the public bus system, designed to force the city to change their segregation policies. Parks later told Mrs. Mamie Till Mobley, and write in her autobiography, that when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”
(Do you remember being taught in your history classes that Rosa Parks was just tired after a hard day of work and made this decision on her own? I do.)
8)      Till’s death and the widespread coverage of the students integrating Little Rock Central High School only two years later in 1957 were especially profound for younger blacks; but events brought an awareness of earlier isolated protests from which the sit-ins of the 1960s were born.
Emmett Till continues to be the focus of literature, memorials and the news.
·         A statue was unveiled in Denver in 1976 (and has since been moved to Pueblo, Colorado) featuring Emmett Till with Martin Luther King, Jr.
·         Emmett Till was included among the forty names of people who had died in the Civil Rights Movement (listed as martyrs[103]) on the granite sculpture of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated in 1989.
·         Mamie Till-Mobley attended many of the dedications for the memorials, including a demonstration in Selma, Alabama on the 35th anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettis Bridge. She later wrote in her memoirs, “I realized that Emmett had achieved the significant impact in death that he had been denied in life. Even so, I had never wanted Emmett to be a martyr. I only wanted him to be a good son.” Till-Mobley died in 2003, the same year her memoirs were published.
·         The Emmett Till Highway” was dedicated between Greenwood and Tutwiler, Mississippi, the same route Till’s body took to the train station on its way to Chicago; it intersects with the H. C. “Clarence” Strider Memorial Highway, named for a notorious sheriff of Tallahatchie County from 1951-1955 and witness for the defense at the Milam-Bryant murder trial. Unfortunately, the Till highway sign has been repeatedly vandalized.
·         In 2007, Tallahatchie County issued a formal apology to Emmett Till’s family. In the same year, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose skull was fractured while being beaten during the 1965 Selma march, sponsored a bill that provides a plan for investigating and prosecuting unsolved Civil Rights era murders. The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was signed into law in 2008.
·         On July 9, 2009, a manager and three laborers at Burr Oak Cemetery were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling the plots. Till’s grave was not disturbed, but investigators found his original glass-topped casket rusting in a dilapidated storage shed. When Till was reburied in a new casket in 2005, there were plans for an Emmett Till memorial museum, where his original casket would be installed. The cemetery manager, who administered the memorial fund, pocketed donations intended for the memorial. Cemetery officials also neglected the casket, which was discolored, the interior fabric torn, and bore evidence that animals had been living in it, although its glass top was still intact. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. acquired the casket a month later.
Obviously, there are more than a few similarities between the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin with the future full of possible parallels.
The lack of arrest of George Zimmerman, Martin’s killer, is “partly a function of an outlandish law, pushed by the National Rifle Association, which allows people to use deadly force against anyone whom they perceive as a threat. It is nothing short of a state-sanctioned license for people to engage in vigilante lawlessness,” writes BET reporter Jonathan P. Hicks for BET
Another troubling aspect of the Trayvon Martin police scenario is the unbelievable ineptitude of the law enforcement officials in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida who allowed George Zimmerman, the white killer (with a Hispanic mother), to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense and to walk away from the police station without doing basic drug testing.
In so many ways, officers in Mississippi actually did a better job than what we have seen thus far in Sanford, Florida, I would guess due to fear of federal involvement. In the Magnolia state, officers tracked down and arrested the two men who later admitted killing Till. Mississippi was scared into action by a powerful union chief, a friend of Till’s mother, who quickly brought in the surveillance airplanes. Even the FBI got quickly involved and later documents show they immediately began an investigation. The lack of diligence by the Sanford police is truly amazing, when you compare it to what immediately happened following Emmett Till’s murder.
The Trayvon Martin case reflects the same horror that many Americans felt a generation ago through the ghastly murder of Emmett Till. “There is the terror of a Black teenager, with all the promise of a fulfilling life, cut off before he even reaches manhood,” Hicks reports.
Coming up in August on the 57th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi, I am honestly angry that I had to move to the heart of the Delta to learn this important piece of American history. But I am still ahead of those who are just now learning this story as a result of Trayvon Martin’s murder.
My high school history books did not include the story of Emmett Till and I was raised in the North where civil rights problems are still largely ignored. We may think we know it all in the North, but we still engage in defacto segregation (that operates like a caste system, but is not legally protected) and do not admit to our problems or have much dialogue in our schools and churches. In my own Episcopal church this past year, I could not get the priests to honor Rev. Martin Luther King, or to preach a special sermon for Black History Month.
One final story to make my point: Last summer, I found myself educating the head of the anthropology department of a prestigious northern Catholic university on the murder of Emmett Till. This white professor knew very little about him, only the mention of his name. Internationally known for her cultural research, she was embarrassed after hearing the entire story and said she would make certain that her future students hear it, too. I believe she will follow through – this story is just too important for anyone to forget and so is what we are learning about murder of a young African American boy who was simply walking home, bringing some candy with him to share, some 57 years later.