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Susan Klopfer, author Who Killed Emmett Till, The Emmett Till Book, and Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited “If this was the 1960s, I would seriously be telling you off,” Margaret said, drawing deeply from her cigarette, and staring coldly at me. We didn’t go anywhere after 5 p.m. back then, and I still follow the same rule today.” DO THOSE OF US who are not African American truly understand the intensity of fear that faces so many parents of black children, especially young males, following the Florida murder of young Trayvon Martin? A civil rights history lesson and a quick telling of a personal incident might help... It can be said that probably most African American families know the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago student who back in the summer of 1955 was tortured and murdered in a small tool shed located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. The two angry, white men who killed Emmett alleged he whistled at a white woman, one of their wives, who at the time was watching over the family grocery store while her husband was out of town. Till entered the small Delta store on the main street of Money, a tiny cotton hamlet, with his cousin and bought a piece of candy. Then Till apparently annoyed this woman, and three days later her husband and his friend tracked Till down. They kidnapped the young Delta visitor from his uncle‟s house, driving him into the next county where they beat him for hours, and then shot him before tossing his corpse into a nearby river. Both men were acquitted a month later, and some historians are now saying that Emmett Till‟s murder was the spark that drove the modern civil rights movement. Rosa Parks later wrote that she decided to take her stand by sitting at the front of a Montgomery city bus, after hearing that Till‟s murderers were set free. Parks had already planned her move, but was looking for the right time. The murder of Emmett Till was the first media event of the modern Civil Rights Movement, demonstrating the horrors of racism in a news story
circulated throughout America and around the world. African Americans clearly understood they were under attack, that no black male in the South was safe. FOR YEARS AFTER TILL'S MURDER, the story of his lynching was regularly told to young black children by their parents as a cautionary tale, a way of keeping African American youngsters from experiencing the same event. “Don‟t go out at night by yourself – or even with others; say „yes sir‟ and „no ma‟am‟ when addressing white folk; look down when you come upon a white person in your path, step into the street if you have to, rather than use the sidewalk,” black children were warned. However, the last warning was chilling: “If you don‟t do what we say, you could end up like Emmett Till.” A friend of mine, Margaret Block, who first told me the Till story, also accompanied me as we roamed around the Delta back in 2003. I began research for a book I wrote two years later, Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, hoping my book would represent a new look at the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement from the time that enslaved Africans arrived in Mississippi through 2005 as criminal cases and trials continued. I met Margaret after my husband took a job as the state‟s chief psychologist for state-run prisons, landing us in red brick living quarters on the grounds of an infamous Delta prison, Parchman Penitentiary. As a former journalist, I was quickly fascinated with this northwestern Mississippi region, its steaming black soil and small white churches that edged the cotton fields, and of course, its civil rights history. I actually knew very little about this last topic and quickly began reading every book that I could find on the Delta region. Margaret came my way at the suggestion of a woman from the small town of Drew, this woman was once the secretary of a murdered civil rights lawyer, also from Drew, and she knew about Margaret‟s civil rights history. ----"Margaret took me around the Delta to meet people and see significant sites. She had but one rule: we do not go out after 5 p.m. I thought that was a little suspicious, perhaps bordering on paranoia. This was 2003 and we were talking about an event that occurred nearly 50 years ago. Surely, two
women – one white and one black – could now be safe going out as the sun goes down." ----This tiny, retired teacher lived 11 miles away from Drew, and I drove over one day to meet her and to learn more about her brother, Sam, a bold early voting rights advocate. Both brother and sister were several of the first members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC that came into Mississippi in 1963. SNCC's major contribution was in its fieldwork, organizing voter registration drives all over the South, especially in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi – something that Sam Block had already been courageously doing with several other brave friends in Greenwood, a particularly vicious community where it was nothing for police officers to sic biting dogs on civil rights marchers. Sam once gained national press by riding through Greenwood on a mule, handing out voter registration cards. Interestingly, this violent town would later take on a less formidable face as filming site of The Help. Greenwood was not portrayed in the movie as Margaret and other advocates would testify today. We traveled together around the Delta to meet people and see significant sites. She had but one rule: we do not go out after 5 p.m. I thought that was a little suspicious, perhaps bordering on paranoia. This was 2003 and we were talking about an event that occurred nearly 50 years ago. Surely, two women – one white and one black – could now be safe going out as the sun goes down. Margaret stuck to her guns and one evening at about 7 p.m., when we avoided her 5 p.m. rule, she seriously made her point. IT WAS DUSK when we dropped in on Glendora, a small cotton town in Tallahatchie County, near the site where Emmett Till‟s body was tied to a gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River after he was tortured and killed; we were trying to find the old home of one of the killers. “If this was the 1960s, I would seriously be telling you off,” Margaret said, drawing deeply off her cigarette, and staring coldly at me. We didn‟t go anywhere after 5 p.m. back then, and I still follow the same rule today.” We he driven earlier in the day to Charleston, a hilly spot above the Delta‟s cotton fields where we spent a long day going to the old courthouse; Margaret was nearly stabbed by a Klansman with a knife on those steps, back in 1963. A nearby FBI agent fortunately stopped the attack, catching the knife and taking
it away. She was lucky, because agents were instructed not to get involved physically in such situations. Margaret, a young SNCC volunteer, was swished away in the back of a funeral home hearse, and taken to a private home in the country where she stayed for a few months, along with Stokely Carmichael who was sent to help organizers in Charleston. After that, Margaret left for the West Coast to go to school. She became a civil rights activist there, working as well with the early anti-Vietnam movement, too. Margaret returned home many years later to live in her family home set on land given to relatives after the Civil War. She took up tutoring school children in her community and remains there to this day, as a beloved social and community advocate. ***** On that night in Glendora, I realized that Margaret had been quite upset earlier in Charleston, reliving the fear she felt back in the 1960s as she walked up the courthouse steps, remembering the time she could have lost her life. She had never returned to this Delta town, but agreed to go back that day because I needed her to tell me the town‟s history. THEN I VIOLATED her rule. The only thing Margaret told me before we went to Charleston was that she had to be back home by 5 p.m. I did not really take her request seriously, did not believe that she would be so fearful of the delta‟s evil dusk. We were tramping through weeds, trying to find this old house in Glendora because my friend said on the way back home she thought she could still find the old house, even though it had been abandoned for years. We made the side trip into the tiny river town of Glendora and started looking around. It was getting dark, mosquitoes were biting, and gnats were buzzing. Margaret was nervous, and finally said we definitely had to go. We did find a skeleton of the killer's house before we got back into the car and drove off. I began to realize how insensitive I was being. This was a real fear for Margaret, this wonderful woman who was shaking and looking out ahead of the car, staring into the beam of car lights. I needed to get her home as fast as I could. Today, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, I have a closer understanding of how my Mississippi friend must have felt. Nevertheless, I will never really get it, because I will never feel such specific terror due to my skin color.
How would I really feel today if I were a parent of black children, considering the brutal murder of young Trayvon Martin and knowing the story of Emmett Till? How deep would my fear run? From that mosquito-biting night along the Tallahatchie River, and from today‟s developing news, I recognize that I have absolutely no comprehension at all of what it is like to live with such internal and ongoing fear because of the color of my child's skin. My friend gave me just an ounce of understanding.
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