Its county seat is Charleston, which was in the early 20 th century the site of one of the largest lumber companies in the world. African Americans constituted less than 40 percent of the population. After a white woman accused him of flirting with her at a grocery store, her husband and another man captured Till and tortured and brutally murdered him.
They then tied a cotton gin fan around his neck, and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The men were tried in the Sumner courthouse and exonerated by a local jury. They then sold their stories to Look magazine, acknowledging they had committed the murder. She also held an open casket funeral in Chicago where thousands of people saw his tortured body. The small villages of Money and Sumner achieved world recognition, as places like Selma, Alabama, and Philadelphia, Mississippi, would in the following decade.
After the trial, however, all of the journalists, the radio broadcasters, and the TV cameras left Sumner, leaving African Americans to live with the legacy of the murder and the trial.
It is still known as the most corrupt county in the state. Interviews reveal the terror and fear that people lived under.
Others tell stories of disappearances, whippings, rapes, and land theft, often by the local police. In all these instances, no one was held accountable. The group invited the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to its meetings to serve as a facilitator and because of its work with the Philadelphia Coalition that had been instrumental in bringing to trial Edgar Ray Killen.
Members of the commission spent the early meetings sharing their memories and experiences of the Till murder and trial and discussing various interpretations of where the murder had occurred and where the body was discovered. The commission agreed to offer an apology to the Till family, to create a brochure on the murder with a map to the various relevant sites, to place a marker in front of the courthouse telling the history of the case and trial, to name part of a county highway after Till, and to find funding to restore the still operating courthouse and place a museum in one of the rooms.
Both sides of the county share one weekly newspaper, perhaps contributing to fewer participants. It illustrates the limitations of community attempts to address a difficult past without also confronting the legacies of a history rooted in racism, violence, terror, and inequality. The stated goals, publications, commemorations, and projects of the commission are as significant for what they ignore, as for what they have chosen to include. However, the African Americans on the Board of Supervisors agreed with the white landowners that the only official museum would be the one located in the Sumner courthouse.
The Till Commission also agreed that the museum would focus only on the trial, not the larger historical context of the murder which might include a discussion of the plantation economy that was underwritten by the exploitation and terror of black people. As a consequence, two museums are being built—one in the Sumner courthouse that is funded in part by a line item allocation in the federal budget that was secured by U. Senator Thad Cochran—a personal friend of one of the landowners—and another that received funding from the office of the African-American Congressman, Benny Thompson.
It features photographs and biographies of the black politicians without any mention of the civil rights movement that occurred in Tallahatchie County, with the exception of two people—Naomie Wiggins and Solomon Gort.
At a Glance
In other words, the brochure presents the history of the murder and trial; it then jumps ahead to the present as if nothing had occurred in between those years. Yet, Tallahatchie County had a civil rights movement that was based largely on African-American farm owners who hosted organizers from SNCC when they came in the early s to help with voter registration. SNCC workers and the black farmers endured tremendous intimidation and violence from many of the plantation owners and their managers. None of these brave people are mentioned in the brochure, nor will they be featured in the museums.
On some level, the civil rights movement has simply been erased from public memory, in part for lack of public recognition. On another level, black politicians in the county have continued to participate in the plantation school of politics—they work directly with the power structure and never actually challenge it.
They continue to work within the paternalistic relations of dependence that grew out of the plantation economy and society. Whatever successes they enjoy, such as securing funds for public housing, or better roads, occurs because they work within the power structure. Most of them were not participants in the civil rights movement, though they clearly benefited from those who struggled and risked their lives so that black people could hold office.
Further, the majority of the activists were landowners themselves and beyond the direct control of the plantation owners. In short, based simply on the brochure of the Commission, it would appear that no interest existed among the members to resurrect, much less commemorate, the activities of the civil rights movement in the surrounding communities. And by confining its discussions, it has limited the reach of the commission to the west side of the county, even though some of the witnesses to the Till murder were secretly confined in the county jail in Charleston during the trial.
In other words, a full confrontation with the Till case and its legacies must entail a broader discussion with the citizens of the entire county. The acknowledgement of the Till murder and the injustices of the trial, while significant, can by no means represent an adequate or accurate enough confrontation with the tragic history of Tallahatchie County. Perpetrators and their descendants must acknowledge the still open wounds of African Americans who have lived side by side with the murderers—and for forty or fifty years.
Citizens must confront the vastly conflicting interpretations of life in their communities. Efforts like those of the Till commission cannot confine their discussions to one single event, avoiding any discussion of the deeper history of white supremacy—of the abuses of the plantation system of sharecropping, of debt peonage, of educational inequities, of the mistreatment and dishonoring of black war veterans, to use only a few examples.
For African Americans know better, and they bring a different set of questions to the table. They know who stole their land, or who murdered or raped a family member, or who beat up another. And they also know that no crime was committed in the white supremacist South without the knowledge of powerful white people. They know that had those important people sought justice, they could have secured convictions of the perpetrators.
Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front
First of all, people engaged in these activities are driven by different motives. For politicians like Barbour, some atonement is necessary if the state is to attract global capital, and in his case, if he were to run for the Republican nomination in And some of the local interracial coalitions are also driven in part by a desire to find some way of attracting industries and tourism to communities desperate for jobs.
In the case of Tallahatchie County, many saw the Till Commission as a way to save a decaying courthouse and as a means for preventing the loss of the county seat. Sumner is a very small village, but the courthouse does employ people, including lawyers who represent the interests of the west side of the county.
They can lead to civil rights tourism where a map directs people to the sites of memory centered around horrendous acts, or in some cases, successful protests. This latter approach has fueled the Mississippi Truth Project and much of the interracial coalition building. And in part, it has led to the recent passage by the state legislature of a law introducing the teaching of the civil rights movement to the curriculum of the public schools.
A commission was established to supervise the creation of a curriculum that incorporates the civil rights movement, focusing on local communities and leaders. Questions remain as to how successful this endeavor will be. It is significant, however, that the legislature responded to pressure from grassroots activists who insisted that educating the next generation in an accurate accounting of the past held out the possibility of securing a more just future for all Mississippi citizens.
For it will pose the question of how a community confronts the legacy of state sanctioned terror and violence, when many of the perpetrators are still living and working in the community; where some of the perpetrators may have been relatives of the white teachers, while some of the victims may have been relatives of the black teachers.
Dr. Timothy B. Smith
Black and white teachers will be asked to bridge the vastly different understandings of history that are held within the African American and white communities. They will have to confront a history as taught and spoken by white people as it brushes up against the lived history of African Americans. They will see how their respective communities have chosen to remember and to forget the daily acts of disrespect, violence, terror, and theft that underwrote the world of white supremacy.
This localized setting offersthe potential for a genuine confrontation with the past. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends. Freedom Riders: and the Struggle for Racial Justice.
In addition to archival research, Lyon, originally from Lexington, Ky. Wickham said the same of her book, which examines the role of the press during the riot at Ole Miss over the admission of James Meredith, the first African American to be enrolled in a public university in the state of Mississippi. We Believed We Were Immortal delves into the unsolved murder of Paul Guihard, a French reporter who was shot in the back on campus during the riot and who became the only known journalist killed during the civil rights movement.
Paul made that sacrifice. And, to me, he made it on behalf of all journalists and all of the public, too. Stories like these — of events good and bad, of people, of talent and of sacrifice — will be told Saturday in Jackson. More information and a schedule of events can be found at msbookfestival. Support Us Go.
The Civil War in Mississippi: Major Campaigns and Battles - ProQuest
Katie Blount. Author Lori Watkins. Author Carter Dalton Lyon. Further, arson was an awful crime which too many women witnessed. The savagery of this torching policy prompted Henrietta Lee to write directly to Union commander, General David Hunter:. Hyena-like, you have torn my heart to pieces!