Emmett Till ~ Why?

Mississippi delta blues

The Mississippi Delta is not a place I would have picked to live and if you had asked me a few years ago what I knew about the region, it would have been a puzzle since I knew nothing of its history or culture — I’d never even heard of the Delta Blues.

My husband, Fred, was hired by a private group to be the mental health director for inmates in Mississippi’s state-run prisons, and so our lives took on a new dimension as we made a small, red-brick house on the grounds of Parchman Penitentiary our new Sunflower County home, in the heart of the Delta.

Eventually, I would enjoying smelling the richness of the alluvial soil and appreciate where we had been dropped. But not the afternoon of my arrival.

The air conditioning was broken and the house had not been cleaned by maintenance crews. There were cobwebs in every corner, dirt on the floor and it was at least 100 degrees plus beastly humid in the shade.

I was madder than hell when I arrived because the car broke down in Oklahoma, putting our three cats and myself into a dilemma. Fred had been living in Jackson, the state capitol, for a month and could only help problem solve by telephone as we drove in from Nevada.

One thing I learned following my self-serving fit of anger was that prisoners don’t ever have air conditioning at Parchman, except in the hospital unit. All of the historic brick and antebellum buildings were replaced years ago by metal construction and the prisoners were living in what amounted to bake ovens. They were living in hell.

Summer left and on cooler fall mornings, I watched out the front window of our new home through the leaves of the ancient pecan trees as several prisoners at a time trotted rescue and misfit horses into the ripe cotton fields. They earned this privilege, working with a unique horse-care program, and I wondered how much it would hurt to enjoy and then relinquish such freedom when evening came.

ONE YEAR BEFORE we arrived, Mississippi’s Department of Archives and History, upon court order, made its second release of an online full-text version of the state’s secret Sovereignty Commission records. The commission operated as a private spy agency from 1956 to 1972 within the state government, with a mission to investigate and halt all integration attempts. The commission’s second goal was to make Mississippi look good to the world, despite the frequent beatings and murders of its black citizens and outsiders who came into the state, trying to end racial violence and discrimination, and reinstate voting rights.

The year we moved to Mississippi, the FBI began re-examining the murder of Emmett Till and would exhume his body the following summer as one of more than 100 unsolved civil rights cold cases that occurred prior to 1969.

Fred came from a liberal, big-city family and could recall hearing his parents talk about Till when he was a child growing up in Oregon. Raised in a small eastern Oregon town, in a more conservative family, I had never heard the story. But even Fred did not recognize that we were living in the epicenter of the Land of Emmett Till.

The story of this young man murdered in a small, nearby cotton hamlet began to resurface when his body was exhumed and examined in June of 2005 by the Cook County medical examiner’s office. While eating catfish and greens in Drew’s Main Street restaurant, we listened in as some Delta people, black and white, talked quietly about what was happening.

Who would not be interested in this story? Soon, I was spending more and more hours in Walter Scurlock’s restaurant listening and then driving around the Delta, trying to piece together the stories I was gathering. Many older black people quickly warmed to my questions and soon shared their secrets of relatives and others who were brutalized and sometimes killed over the years.

And as they told their stories, it was as if these crimes had just taken place. Most white people, on the other hand, didn’t seem to want to share what they knew unless they had been actively involved in the movement. Or they simply didn’t know the history.

Mississippi’s William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead, in fact, it’s not even past.”

And in true Faulknerian spirit, the people who wanted to talk to me were soon sharing their stories as though it were yesterday. Some had kept lists of up to thirty names, passed through their families, of people who had “disappeared.” Others told stories of their own involvement in trying to bring change.

I spent time looking through yellowed files in small-town libraries, museums and newspaper offices seeking records of any kind to expand my knowledge; some records were so delicate and uncared for, they crumbled in my hands and I had to quickly put them down so they would not be ruined. But the best history came directly from the people who talked to me — men and women wanting to examine what they experienced or had heard during some of the worst years of Mississippi’s civil rights … and civil wrongs.