GLENDORA, Miss. — As a kid, I can remember my parents getting me and my brother to sit down every Monday night one February to watch the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize.
If you’re not familiar with it, it is a powerful long documentary about the more intense segment of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement between 1954 to 1965, with interviews of key players — many of whom were still living at that time. I’m sure the 30-year-old documentary and its corresponding book can still be ordered.
The documentary splendidly weaves the tale of the movement, its roots and the incipient stages of the long journey to victory from the courts — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka — to the boycotts, sit-ins and marches.
I was riveted by the first episode and the story of Emmett Till. Till was 14 in the summer of 1955 when his mother sent him to visit relatives in her native Tallahatchie County, Miss., only about six years older than I was when I first heard of his horrific story.
On a late August day at a local grocery store in the tiny town of Money, Till is said to have spoken to, possibly whistled at, a married white woman at the store. Jim Crow’s chokehold on the social and legal ways of the South made this the ultimate taboo and even though it may have been a codified transgression, revenge often took a different path while law enforcement averted its gaze and sometimes gave approval. A few nights later, Till was kidnapped by a gang of racist goons, one of whom was the woman’s husband.
They beat the teen, mutilating his body and shooting him, tying a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weigh him down as they tossed his body into the Tallahatchie River. A 14-year-old boy. Lynched. His body was found days later downstream.
His mother did something fearless and courageous. She held an open casket funeral back in Chicago. His bloated body, his face beaten and mutilated to the point he was deformed and unrecognizable. She allowed an Ebony Magazine photographer to take pictures of young Emmett in his casket. She wanted the world to see what hatred did to her baby. It took an all-white jury a little more than an hour to acquit the killers. Till’s death and the widespread media attention it received is considered a watershed moment that helped spark the Civil Rights movement. Till’s death came eight years to the day before the March on Washington. Not sure if that was anything more than a coincidence, but a powerful connection.
Mississippi has an “interpretive center” dedicated to Emmett Till. It was a bit out of the way on my recent drive through the Delta, but I went looking for it. I crossed into Mississippi at Greenville, rolling through the “Queen City’s” faded streets to join the highway to Leland, up to Cleveland and on to Ruleville (the hometown of activist Fannie Lou Hamer, whose televised “Is this America?” speech so stirred the 1964 Democratic National Convention that it is considered a true beginning of the activist push toward voting rights legislation).
The scenery: crops, and lots of them. It seemed even in cities and towns that any available vacant land had neatly spaced rows of crops. Mostly, it looked like the beginnings of cotton crops, corn, maybe sorghum and occasionally, rice. Clusters of small wooden homes dotted the landscape. Farmers seem to take full advantage of the alluvium so flatly deposited over eons by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The only things to break the monotony are narrow oxbow lakes, the ancient remnants of old river channels, forming swampy crescents lined with cypress trees.
Mississippi makes sure you take in all the scenery, too. The speed limit was 45 mph through the straightest stretches of State Highway 8, peppered with highway patrolmen snagging even the slightest speeders and tractors moving from field to field. For any blues lovers, signs directed drivers to points of interest along the way. Needless to say, not all of this is cellphone signal country, either.
Glendora is just off U.S. Highway 49E, down a narrow paved road curving along Black Bayou and over a set of railroad tracks. This summer day, a crowd of locals chatted outside the local grocery store and what looked like a restaurant and some homes, all lining the tracks. They noticed the white car with the Texas plates. Their heads swiveled as I passed, giving slight waves as I waved back.
Up ahead, what passed for pavement in this unincorporated town graded into a country dirt road that curved into a dead end, where crepe myrtles fronted a weather beaten tin building. This is the Glendora Gin, where Emmett Till’s killers stole the 70-pound fan they used to weigh down Till’s body to keep it from floating to the surface of the Tallahatchie River.
It was closed. Despite the winding route through the Delta, I wasn’t angry about that — too much, anyway. I walked around the building a bit, looked across the surrounding fields and read some of the historical signs that told the Till story. Glendora also is one of the locations where Till was taken when he was tortured that night 61 years ago, supposedly to a shed behind one of the killers’ homes.
There’s something about standing in a historic place like that. It was so hot that day, with the buzz of katydids carried over the breeze and chatter from the nearby corner store not far away. Peace that belies what happened.
It makes it real. You gain perspective. You feel the blast furnace of the summer heat. You see the country roads. You play through your mind how you imagine things went when they killed that teenaged boy.
You start wondering how many befell the same fate before him and were lynched by Jim Crow’s henchmen of hate, and how many after him. Those were the things that filled my grown-up heart and mind standing at the end of that Mississippi dirt road, next to that cotton gin that played a role in one of the most despicable bits of our past; my heart and mind informed by life experience as a Southern black man educated and working down here my whole life and the events and debate of recent years. In that space, there was much more depth to the fear, frustration, confusion and anger I had as an 8-year-old just learning who Emmett Till was and what that world did to him.
More emotions kind of surprised me. Gratefulness. Certainly not for what happened to Till, but the courage of his mother and great uncle who risked their lives to testify at the trial and face the accused. Appreciation of Mamie Till’s stand of having an open-casket funeral. Pride in the national voice she was determined to give to her son’s murder and the fuel it gave to the next decade of forcing America to look in the mirror and ask itself, “Aren’t we better than this?” Reflection of what all has become possible as a result and sadness at the realization of what still needs to be done.