Fahrenheit 2023: Even in Mississippi’s segregation academies, we learned about Emmett Till

The year I was 15, I liked nothing better than driving my 1979 Caprice Classic out into the Mississippi Delta. As long as I was in town, I’d follow the speed limit, but as soon as I crossed the bridge spanning the Tallahatchie, I’d slam the gas pedal flat to the floor, racing down Money Road, a long straight shot cutting through the flat expanse of cotton and soybeans fields.  There was only one sharp curve where you had to be careful, right near the Little Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where Robert Johnson is buried. Money Road led out to what once had been known as Money, Mississippi, but by 1989 was nothing but a decaying cluster of buildings. I was drawn to one in particular, a crumbling two-story structure collapsing under the kudzu. I never went inside. PRIVATE PROPERTY, red letters on a white sign stated, NO TRESPASSING. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. Instead, I sat in the Caprice, listening to music, staring at that building. There I would think about the 14-year-old boy who had once come all the way to the Delta from Chicago to visit his cousins, whose death sparked the civil rights movement, whose legacy, given the recent attacks on Black history, on libraries, and on education by Republican ideologues, has been on my mind.

Even though I lived in Leflore County, where the young boy last ran around and played with his cousins, four miles from the grocery where he crossed paths with the White woman, still living, still free, who bears responsibility for his death, I only learned about him in ninth grade in my Mississippi History class at Pillow Academy. However, when my teacher told us about him, he wasn’t the lost son from Jet Magazine who became the symbol of the civil rights movement, nor was he the falsely-accused predator of Look Magazine, but instead he was this kid, the same age as most of us, who had come to Mississippi from Chicago to visit his cousins, and had crossed paths with the wrong rednecks. 

Except my teacher didn’t call them that, even though we had already learned about the rednecks, the White farmers who at the turn of the 20th century rallied around the white supremacist James K. Vardaman, the populist one-time governor and senator who threatened to lynch “every Negro in the state of Mississippi” in order to maintain White supremacy. When my teacher told us about the boy who had been lynched in 1955, she was very careful. She had to be. Relatives of those men, and of other noted local White supremacists, attended my school. Instead, she described him as this 14-year-old boy who was not from the Delta and didn’t understand how we lived. 

When I asked my teacher what that meant —  “how we lived” — she told me to ask my parents, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to know more than I could see, which was that the Whites-only section of town, north Greenwood, was divided from where Black people lived by a river and a train track. I just remember being shocked that adults found a 14-year-old boy to be such a threat that they had him killed.

The Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of the segregationist movement, something I didn’t know then, even though I was educated in two different segregationist schools.

For many years I was a school librarian. While reviewing a timeline of the civil rights movement, my students were shocked to discover it had not started with Rosa Parks and Dr. King and technicolor impressions of the Black people of Montgomery taking part in the bus boycott, the way they had been taught, but instead was sparked by a 14-year-old’s death. Understand, my students were in fourth grade. I hadn’t planned to discuss Emmett Till. I had been reading a book called “The Case For Loving,” which was about the fight to decriminalize marriages between people of different races, a case which — given that I am married to a man of Japanese descent, one whose parents, to even get married, had had to cross the Alabama state line due to the strictness of Mississippi’s miscegenation laws — personally impacts me.

I didn’t dwell on the murder, but I didn’t whitewash it. I taught at a public school in the South. My students, Black, Brown and White, all lived in America in a decade which, at that time, was shaped by the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin and Alton Sterling. 

“Why did they kill him?” one of my students, a girl with large brown eyes like mine, like the boy’s,  asked, echoing my long-ago question. I remember I faltered and said something about racialized violence, but I couldn’t answer her question. I am still trying. 

Now I am surprised that I even learned about Emmett Till in high school, because I attended a segregationist academy, one of the hundreds of private schools which opened during the 1960s and 1970s in the South to keep White children from being educated alongside Black students. The Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of the segregationist movement, something I didn’t know then, even though I was educated in two different segregationist schools. At my first segregationist academy, Greenwood Christian, we learned from Abeka textbooks that America was founded not as a place where people had the freedom to practice their religion, but as a Christian nation. We began each day by pledging allegiance to the Christian flag. Even though my hometown Greenwood, and county, Leflore, were named after the Choctaw chief who, with 1834’s Treaty of the Dancing Rabbit, ceded Choctaw lands to the state of Mississippi, which led to thousands of Choctaws dying on the forced march to Oklahoma which became known as the Trail of Tears, at my school we learned that the Trail of Tears wasn’t bad because God used it to convert many “Indians.” 

By the time the Civil War began, Mississippi enslaved more African Americans, 437,000, than any other, with conditions notorious for their cruelty (to be sold down the river in the 1800s was a threat used to inspire terror). My classmates and I were taught that most slave owners —like my own forebears — were kind to the people they enslaved, and furthermore that they had “saved” those they enslaved by removing them from a culture that worshiped the devil by converting them.

My high school, Pillow Academy, was located across the highway from Florewood River Plantation State Park, a replica of an antebellum plantation constructed by the state of Mississippi in the 1970s. However, even though my teacher taught us about Emmett Till’s murder, she didn’t explain the White supremacist ideology of Emmett’s killer, JW Milam, who, the winter after the murders in 1956, told William Bradford Huie of Look Magazine, “I like n******—in their place—I know how to work ’em…As long as I live and can do anything about it, (they) are gonna stay in their place. (They) ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n****** even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired of living.” 

Now I wonder if in this time where the rednecks are again rising, in this climate where teaching history is equivocated with teaching hate, when teaching anything that would cause anyone to “feel guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” due to their race, color, sex or national origin can lead to prosecution, if my ninth grade Mississippi History teacher would have even dared to tell us about Emmett Till. Because I know that, had I not left public education a few years ago, I would think twice, especially in light of new legislation.

Under a recently proposed measure in my adopted state, Georgia, Senate Bill 154 would amend the Official Code of Georgia, allowing the prosecution of school librarians for distributing harmful materials to minors, criminalizing school librarians who let students check out books found to be obscene. School librarians could face jail time or fines of $5000. This bill is currently in committee and follows Georgia’s 2022 school book ban, Senate Bill 226, which expedited the process to remove books and other contents viewed “harmful” to minors, designating principals, not librarians overseeing a committee, to decide whether to remove contested works within 10 days

However, even though my teacher taught us about Emmett Till’s murder, she didn’t explain the White supremacist ideology of Emmett’s killer, J.W. Milam.

I earned my M.Ed. in Instructional Technology with a focus on becoming a school librarian in 2001. My final project focused on what I called “creating culturally relevant collections,” which had many of the same goals as #WeNeedDiverseBooks did in 2014. However, during the 2021-22 school year, more than 1,600 books across 32 states were banned from public schools. Forty-one percent of these books featured LGBTQ+ themes, 40 percent of these featured a protagonist or prominent secondary character of color, and 21 percent featured discussions of race and racism. When I try to imagine myself now, working in a public school, I wonder, would I be comfortable sharing materials that might lead to my being fined and jailed? Or would I, unlike my high school teacher, censor myself?

In A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing,” David Mura discusses how White identity is based upon forgetting the past. He quotes James Baldwin saying, “Go back to where you started, or at least as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again, and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know from whence you came.” 

I’ve spent much of my adulthood learning where I came from. I had to. When I was 21, a former friend and high school classmate killed two Black men. When we were in our thirties, despite a decades-long documented history of mental illness, he became the only White person ever executed for killing a Black person in Mississippi, a state notorious for its anti-Blackness. I began learning this history in order to understand why my childhood friend killed the men he did. 

Among the things I have learned is that the Confederate memorial downtown, the one with my great-great-grandfather’s name on its base, was erected in memory of Benjamin G. Humphreys, the governor of Mississippi, who, soon after slavery was abolished, passed a series of laws known as Black Codes which regulated the labor, movements, and activities of the recently freed slaves, and effectively nullified the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, criminalizing Blackness. My county Leflore was the lynching capital of Mississippi, which per capita lynched more African Americans than any other state, and many of these lynchings took place in the Leflore County Massacre of 1889. I learned that Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader who was investigating the death of Emmett Till, was shot in the back by a Leflore County Klansman who, when I was in high school, still walked around in my hometown, free. After Stokely Carmichael was arrested during the March Against Fear for the 27th time in Greenwood, he, understandably, demanded “We Need Black Power,” effectively fracturing the civil rights movement.

At times, yes, I have felt guilt and anguish about the actions of my White ancestors, but mainly what I have felt is a determination to make amends for the past by educating myself and others. I want to learn from the past in order to make this country a better place. 

When I try to imagine myself now, working in a public school, I wonder, would I be comfortable sharing materials that might lead to my being fined and jailed?

“What does Mississippi look like?” my son’s girlfriend asked me over the holidays. For a minute I faltered trying to think of how to explain Mississippi and the Delta to this young woman from the northeast. I told her about its rolling rivers and large trees and flat fields stretching out as far as the eye can see, how during the spring and fall the sky is a river of birds, the Mississippi Flyway. I told her how my town Greenwood has shrunk over the decades, its infrastructure decayed and crumbling, because of its allegiance to White supremacy. Rather than working with the civil rights protesters to make the Delta equitable for all individuals, the White leaders of the Delta disinvested from its schools and recreational programs, filling the public pools with concrete. They closed down the nursing program because they refused to integrate. Health care, clean air, clean water, education, mental health, community services all were sacrificed to serve the interests of the ruling class, which is currently under scrutiny for robbing welfare benefits from some of the most impoverished children in the nation. 

The hospital in my hometown is at risk of closure because the state’s current governor, Tate Reeves, who spent his college years cosplaying as a Confederate with his fraternity, refuses to accept federal funding for Medicaid. You can’t even drink the water in the state capital, Jackson, where I was born. In 2023. 

I keep a picture of that young boy now in my studio, one I cut out from a newspaper and mounted on an index card. In this photo, he is dressed for church in a white Oxford and black tie, his large eyes shaded by a straw hat. I keep this picture of him to remember where I came from, to remember the teacher who had the courage to tell me his story, to remember how the present is determined by the past.

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