The Freedom Trail in Mississippi Is a Chronicle of Outrage and Courage
Posted September 11, 2018 8:15 p.m. EDT
A lot of people could have said “The past is never dead — it’s not even past,” but it was Faulkner who actually said it, which makes sense when you consider that Faulkner was from Mississippi, and in no place is the past less dead than Mississippi. I’ve never seen as many roadside historical markers anywhere as I have here, and I live in New England.
Mississippi still celebrates Confederate Heritage Month and Confederate Memorial Day, and retains the Stars and Bars in its state flag, but in recent years it has taken care to celebrate other parts of its history, as well. In the past, all those roadside markers were put up by the state, and terse; but lately other groups and organizations have undertaken their own projects, like the Mississippi Country Music Trail and the nascent Mississippi Writers Trail, that feature information-rich markers with text covering both sides, and even photographs. The most expansive is the Mississippi Blues Trail, which erected its first marker in 2006 and now has 200 of them, some of which can be found in other states and even countries. Those markers tell of musicians and sites that are significant to the development and dissemination of Mississippi’s greatest contribution to the arts (sorry, Faulkner), but they testify, less directly, to the suffering and resilience of its sizable African-American population.
If “less directly” doesn’t seem quite enough, another Mississippi trail tells the same story much more explicitly. At present, it has fewer than 30 markers; it’s easier, I suppose, to celebrate the music that originated with sharecroppers and field hands chopping cotton in the hot Mississippi Delta sun than it is to contemplate the oppression and precarious daily existence that characterized their lives. The Blues Trail tells of how some of them coped with the burdens of perpetual injustice; the Freedom Trail tells of those who got tired of coping and somehow summoned the courage to try to free themselves from those burdens.
Leslie-Burl McLemore, who got involved in Mississippi’s civil rights movement as a student at Rust College and later spent four decades teaching history at Jackson State, served on the task force assembled by the Mississippi Department of Tourism in 2010 to get the Freedom Trail started. Their first mandate, he said, was “to identify places and individuals that had been heavily involved in the civil rights movement,” and then prioritize.
“It was clear,” he said, “that the Emmett Till marker would be No. 1.”
It stands in the smallDelta town of Money, Mississippi. There doesn’t seem to be much money, or anything else, in Money; today it’s just a handful of modest homes and two commercial structures, both of which are empty: a filling station, and a two-story brick building that’s missing its roof and parts of its walls and looks like it’s been in ruins since Sherman marched through. (He didn’t.) Just 30 years ago, though, when I lived and worked in the Delta, it was still a going concern, a small grocery; I bought my first (and only) can of Vienna sausage there. With its dusty shelves and dim lighting and sagging floor, it was easy for me then to picture what it would have looked like 33 years earlier, in August 1955, when a black 14-year-old from Chicago, down visiting his mother’s kin, walked into it and supposedly whistled at, or said something fresh to, or pawed the white woman working behind the counter. Three nights later, the woman’s husband and his brother snatched young Till out of bed, carried him off into the darkness and lynched him. Back in Chicago, the boy’s mother insisted her son be given an open-casket funeral, “so the world can see what they did to my boy.” Photos of his gruesomely disfigured corpse were published in Jet magazine and from there raced around the world, sparking sensational outrage. The killers were arrested; reporters came from all over the country, and even from overseas, to cover the trial. The jury hastily acquitted the brothers, but it was too late: The story of Emmett Till had already shown the world that the ugliness of Jim Crow went much deeper than segregated schools and separate water fountains.
“Some of us … mark the beginning of the ‘modern civil rights movement’ with the lynching of Emmett Till,” McLemore told me. “Rosa Parks tied the Montgomery Bus Boycott” — which started two months after the acquittal — “with Emmett Till. It has been said that she noted that the day she refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, she was reflecting on Emmett Till.”
McLemore said everyone agreed that the Freedom Trail marker should go outside the grocery. There are other sites, though, that are just as significant to the story, like the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, where Till’s killers, brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were tried and acquitted in September 1955. Sumner is about 30 miles from Money; the trip takes you along a stretch of Highway 49E that has been renamed the Emmett Till Memorial Highway, past the Emmett Till Multipurpose Complex — a low brick building that looks like a school or maybe a modern armory — behind which you will find the Emmett Till Memorial Walking Trail. The courthouse was built in 1904; 110 years later, its courtroom underwent a restoration, undoing a 1970s renovation that some say was intended to plaster over history. Today it looks a lot more like it did in countless photographs that were circulated worldwide in 1955.
Like many Southern county courthouses, the one in Sumner sits in the middle of a picturesque square. Off to one side is a small one-story brick office building with “Breland & Whitten Lawyers” still painted on a couple of windows: J.J. Breland and John Whitten were two of the brothers’ five attorneys. Nearby, in a storefront, is the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which has some exhibits on the walls and a typewriter belonging to J.W. Kellum, another member of the killers’ legal team. (Forty years after the trial, I interviewed Kellum, Whitten and the two surviving jurors.) The most striking artifact, though, is fairly new: a marker, leaning up against a wall, that the center originally put up in 2007 near the site where Till’s lifeless body was pulled from the water three days after he was carried off to his doom. It’s purple, and powerful, and pocked with bullet holes.
An identical replacement was recently shot up after just five weeks.
The one in Money has been vandalized, too.
There is no marker indicating the site outside the town of Drew, about 20 miles from Sumner. Set back about a hundred yards from a dirt road is a lovely white farmhouse and, nearby, a weathered brown barn; they look like something you might see in a Wyeth painting. The owner had granted me permission to come by whenever, but he wasn’t home when I did, so I walked around the property by myself — specifically, around the barn, which, I was told, the owner used these days mostly for storage. At one end, behind a chain-link gate, sat a dog who just stared at me glumly as I circled by again and again.
The Delta is extremely flat, but the house and barn sit on a modest rise that affords a visitor a view of the surrounding farmland that just about anyone would find serene. I know I did, so much so that for a few moments I forgot that, before dawn on August 28, 1955, Milam and Bryant drove the 14-year-old Till to this barn — the farm was then managed by another Milam brother — took him inside, and there beat him so savagely that by the time they loaded him back in the truck, the eighth grader was nearly dead. Some say he already was.
They drove about 15 miles toward the rising sun, to the small town of Glendora, where Milam lived. Another purple marker, this one unmolested, stands at the spot where his house used to be. A few hundred yards away, in a building that was once a cotton gin, Glendora’s current mayor, Johnny B. Thomas, has installed a museum that contains replicas of the pickup truck and Till’s coffin, as well as other things relating to (and not relating to) the story. It was closed when I visited, but I found Thomas working in a field, and he told me how to locate the other thing I was hoping to see there: a narrow metal bridge that spans a bayou just outside town. It’s no longer in use; grass and dirt cover much of its surface, and the road at its far end is overgrown to the point of impassibility. As I approached it on foot, I noticed the ground was littered with bright blue shotgun shells.
The bridge’s beams are rusted; water flows lazily below, caressing cypress trees in its midst, an idyllic spot to cast a line and daydream. On that morning in August 1955, Milam and Bryant dragged young Till here, shot him in the head, tied a heavy cotton gin fan to his lifeless body with barbed wire and dumped it into the bayou. Three days later, another boy, fishing nearby, noticed its legs poking up out of the water.
I thought this site was unmarked, too; it’s not. Mounted atop a railing at the center of the bridge, I spotted a small metal plaque:
W T Young Bridge Co.Nashville Tenn.
Board of SupervisorsJ.A. Shores Pres.S.C. BarnesR.W. StevensS.M. Jones
About 50 miles south, near the corner of Church and First streets in Belzoni, you’ll find another Freedom Trail marker, this one commemorating the Rev. George Lee. Like most Delta towns, Belzoni still looks very much like it did in the 1950s, when Lee preached the gospel here. His marker stands outside the Green Grove Baptist Church, though his pulpit was actually at another Baptist church in town, White Star.
For most of his 51 years, George Lee kept a low profile outside church; he is believed to have sat for only one photograph in his lifetime. But sometime in the early 1950s, he decided to register to vote — no small undertaking for a black man in the South back then, especially in the Delta. Somehow, he succeeded; then he managed to get his wife, Rosebud, registered. And then he went out and got other African-Americans in Belzoni and Humphreys County registered, too — nearly 100 of them.
“He was actually out there before Brown v. Board of Education,” noted Helen Sims, the director of Belzoni’s Rev. George Lee Museum, which was closed because of storm damage when I visited town. Lee, she said, also co-founded the local chapter of the NAACP and served as vice president of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. In April 1955, he spoke before a crowd of thousands at the council’s annual meeting, urging everyone present to register and vote. The crowd, Jet magazine reported, was “electrified.”
Local whites were, too, though not in a good way. According to Sims, “the white leadership in the town and county” converged upon Lee’s house — twice. “They basically said, ‘stop trying to register people to vote, and we’ll leave you and your wife alone,'” Sims explained. “He didn’t go for the deal.”
On May 7, 1955, as Lee was driving home on Church Street, just a block from Green Grove, a car pulled up alongside his; someone fired several shots, one at the minister’s tires and the rest at his head, blasting away his jawbone and part of his face. Mortally wounded, he crashed his car into a house. There were eyewitnesses, but the white sheriff refused to investigate, much less arrest anyone, calling it a car accident and going so far as to declare that the lead pellets extracted from the victim’s head were actually dental fillings that had gotten knocked loose in the crash. According to Jet, in an attempt to keep news of the slaying contained, “Belzoni telephone operators refused to take long-distance calls from Negroes.”
It didn’t work. Word spread; more than 2,000 people showed up for Lee’s funeral, which was held at Green Grove because White Star was too small to accommodate them. Rosebud Lee insisted her husband have an open casket. “She wanted people to see,” Sims explained, “what they had done to her husband.” Jet published a photo of it — three months before Emmett Till was murdered.
Today, there’s one street in Belzoni named for Lee, but pieces of his story are everywhere, starting with the Freedom Trail marker and the church that stands next to it; if you’re diligent enough, you can find his tombstone in its graveyard. Right behind the cemetery, on Hayden Street, is the house where Lee was living when he was killed. It’s a three-minute walk from there to the block where he was shot. Sims couldn’t tell me exactly which house there he had driven into, but as I inspected a row of six, knowing it must be one of them, I spotted a man standing outside a shoe repair shop across the street and asked him if he knew. “That one there,” he said, pointing at the one on the far left. “You can see the porch doesn’t look right.”
“Who lived there back then?”
“It was an old lady, name of Katherine Blair.”
“Do you remember when it happened?” I asked him.
“I was six years old,” he replied. “But I remember people talking about it.” His name, he said, was Percy Gordon.
A half-mile away, at the Humphreys County Courthouse (erected 1921), I knocked on an old white wooden door. The words “Circuit Clerk” were flaking off its transom; they were, I’m guessing, painted on there well before 1955. The three women inside smiled at me. “Is this where people register to vote?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the one with the biggest smile. She was wearing a bright red Delta Sigma Theta sweater.
“Is this where they would have registered in the early ‘50s?”
“Did it look like this then?”
“Just like this,” she said, sweeping an arm around the room.
When I told her I was interested in George Lee, her face lit up even more. “You’re welcome to look around. Feel free to check out the vault, too,” she said, gesturing to a chamber behind a thick black metal door. “Stay as long as you like.”
The vault is stacked, floor to ceiling, with enormous leather-bound volumes that stretch back to the establishment of the county a century ago: Criminal Docket; Civil Docket; Marriage Record; Marriage Record Colored; Registration. The clerk, Timaka James-Jones, told me I could examine whatever I liked; if I hadn’t had a return flight booked already, I would still be there perusing right now. The most fascinating were the ones stamped Poll Tax Receipts. It is said that James-Jones’ predecessor, six decades back, tried to turn Lee away when he first went to pay his.
“Have you found his name in any of these?” I asked her.
“You know, when I started here, in 2003, the first thing I looked up was my marriage license. The second thing I looked for was his name,” she told me. “I’m still looking for it.”
Following the Freedom Trailand reading its markers can evoke, in a contemplative mind, two notions: That things have changed a great deal in this country over the past six or seven decades, and that they haven’t changed much at all. I say “and” instead of “or” because it’s possible to think both at once and not be wrong; but, as regards the latter, I will tell of just one more thing I saw in Belzoni, as I made my way to the Humphreys County Library, which shares a parking lot with the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department next door. There was only one space available, and it was marked “Authorized Vehicles Only.” Anxious — you don’t want to have to bail your rental out of a tow pound in Belzoni — I looked around and spotted the sheriff escorting a handcuffed prisoner in an orange jumpsuit through the parking lot. They chatted amiably; the sheriff was black, the prisoner white.
“Can I park here?” I asked the lawman.
“Yes,” he said. “You can.”