This is a reasonable question given Mississippi’s historically tumultuous race relations, the violence sparked by the Civil Rights movement, which challenged the segregated status quo, and the state’s reluctant acceptance of integration. In this regard, I just finished reading Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe. This YA historical fiction book narrates the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till through the eyes of Hiram Hillburn, a teenager, who has just returned to Mississippi and who, at the story’s outset, holds a romanticized notion of life in the Delta: “[Greenwood] seemed like the homiest place on earth to me, and the longer I stood there, the happier I was to be . . . back where I belonged.”
As Crowe weaves his story, Hillburn’s homecoming leads to a gradual awareness of the cruelties of Greenwood’s segregated society. In this book, the case of Emmett Till symbolizes all of the racially motivated hatred, inequality, brutality, and injustice. Till, a fourteen-year old African American from Chicago, was spending a few weeks of his summer in the Delta. While visiting the local store with some of his friends after a long, hot day of picking cotton, Till unwittingly violated the unspoken, but strictly—and sometimes violently—enforced racial code of the Deep South by whistling at a married white woman. In the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, Till was kidnapped at gunpoint from his great uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi. His brutalized body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River some three days later. The perpetrators of this brutal crime, Roy Bryant—the storeowner and also the husband of the affronted woman—and his half brother, J. W. Milam were arrested and indicted for murder. After a nearly week long trial including a jury deliberation that lasted slightly longer than an hour, the all-white 12 man jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of Till’s murder.
Crowe is not alone in this apprehension. Just last month, a community forum was held in Starkville, Mississippi, which included the dedication of a website http://starkvillecivilrights.msstate.edu to the community’s civil rights movement and a panel discussion. With the integration of Starkville schools in the early Seventies, one thoughtful questioner asked whether the curriculum had changed to be more inclusive of African Americans. In response, one panelist offered an unqualified “No” while alluding to a state history textbook written by John K. Bettersworth, which, incidentally, went out of print in the late 1980s.
Civil Rights/Human Rights
4. Understand and describe the historical circumstances and conditions that necessitated the development of civil rights and human rights protections and/or activism for various minority groups in Mississippi.
b. Identify and explain the significance of the major actors, groups and events of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 20th century in Mississippi.
The only state adopted textbook for Mississippi Studies, written by Dr. David G. Sansing and entitled, A Place Called Mississippi (2012), confronts the tragic Till murder head-on. In a subsection with the heading “The Murder of Emmett Till,” the author provides an overview of the crime along with two pictures—one of Till and his mother and the other of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam—the caption reads: “Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, seen here with his mother, was visiting his cousins in Mississippi . . . when he was brutally murdered. The murder became a national sensation when his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral and black newspapers published photographs of his disfigured face.” Furthermore, the caption notes that Bryant and Milam “later admitted to killing Till in an interview in Look magazine, for which they were paid $4,000” (256-257). The next chapter (ten) focuses exclusively on “The Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1971” (262-289).
Also noteworthy is the construction of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The museum now under construction and subsidized by state tax dollars is scheduled to open in 2017. Its significance is suggested by the simultaneous construction of the Museum of Mississippi History at the same location. In fact, the two museums will “bookend” with a shared entry hall. The estimated cost of the two facilities is $80 million.
Finally, Mississippi State University’s College of Education, which prepares more teachers than any other institution of higher learning in the state, has all the students in the elementary education (K-8) senior block read Mississippi Trial, 1955. In fact, this book is read as the semester concludes and students develop lesson plans, which incorporate this book along with primary sources related to the case.
Much more remains to be done in Mississippi! However, the basic decency, courtesy, and civility of Mississippians have seldom failed to impress. As Hiram Hillburn was about to board a train to leave Greenwood, he stopped in to say goodbye to Mr. Paul, a shopkeeper. Still struggling to come to grips with Till’s death and the good and bad that resides in every individual, Hiram concluded, “a good person shouldn’t go along. He should leave or stop whatever bad that’s happening.” Mr. Paul’s apt reply is a humble reminder to every reader: “Sure he should. Sure should all of us . . . Have you always managed that?”