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An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till
By Simeon Wright, Herb Boyd
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2010 Simeon Wright and Herb Boyd
All rights reserved.
Life in Mississippi
Mississippi in the 1950s, when I was coming of age, was just like Mississippi in the 1860s, when the Ku Klux Klan and night riders were part of our daily lives.
I was born October 15, 1942, in Doddsville, in Sunflower County, where Daddy was working at the time. I grew up in a Jim Crow society, where everything was segregated. Jim Crow is just a shorthand way of saying that we had separate schools, water fountains, cafes, churches, and restaurants. The cemeteries were segregated — it was even against the law for black and white dead people to be together. Our contact with white people was limited. And when there was contact, it was initiated by whites.
I recall one instance when a white plantation owner, Mr. Peterson, came to our home and asked if I could spend the day swimming with his son, Tommy. I was allowed to go only after I finished my chores. It was the last day of chopping cotton, and I was the last one in the field. Swimming with Tommy was great fun, but I felt a little uneasy swimming without any clothes on before white people. When swimming with my brothers, we always found a secluded spot. In the back of my mind, I kept wondering what the white folks were thinking as Tommy and I made all of that noise while they were fishing.
Tommy could come by whenever he wanted, but I was never allowed to meet with him on my own initiative. I was never allowed inside his home. The same kind of restrictions existed when the sons of the "straw bosses" (supervisors who often substituted for the real bosses) came to play with us. They always came to visit me; I never went to visit them.
We children were kept separated until they needed us.
Once, my mother told me that when Tommy became a man, I would have to call him mister. But he would never have to call me that. We were the same age, and I made up my mind then and there that I would never call him mister. This was one of my first real reactions to Jim Crow. But over the next few years, I had to learn the other unwritten laws of the South that my mother and father knew very well.
My sister Hallie had become real good friends with a white woman, and one day she took Hallie with her to Greenwood, the nearest large town. They were in town shopping and having a good time when the white woman decided she wanted some ice cream. She asked Hallie if she wanted some too. Hallie said yes, but the clerk behind the counter refused to sell the white woman any ice cream for Hallie. He was willing to sell it only if it was for her. They walked out of the store together without buying anything.
We faced a similar Jim Crow policy in our school system. "Separate but equal" was the name of the game. There was a white school near our home, but we were bussed to a school far across town with all black students and teachers. All we could do was look at the white school, with its merry-go-round, slides, swings, and other playthings. We had none of these things at the school I attended. Yes, we had a basketball court, but we had to dribble the ball on dirt. And believe me, we kicked up so much dust you could hardly tell when somebody had made a basket. Given the education we received in the classroom, where we were essentially trained to be farmers, we might as well have stayed on the basketball court.
The rules of separation were also in force at the three theaters in Greenwood. At the Paramount Theater, for example, downstairs was reserved for white patrons; we had to go upstairs to the balcony.
More hurtful still was the justice system. Whites could beat us, even murder us, and nothing was ever done about it. It wasn't unusual for white men to hire black women as cooks or domestics and then force them into sexual relationships, which is nothing more than rape. Very little was said or done about this. We had no rights in court, and only the boldest of blacks dared to bring a lawsuit against a white person.
Most of the residents where we lived were farmers and, to put it more directly, sharecroppers. Here is how sharecropping worked: A landowner would plant cotton in the spring, usually in April. The sharecroppers would live on the land and cultivate the cotton — what we called "chopping" cotton — and it would be harvested during the last week of August. The landowner would sell the cotton, take a share of the money to cover all his expenses, and split the remaining money fifty-fifty with the sharecroppers.
That means the land we lived on and worked did not belong to us. In fact, only about four or five blacks in our area were landowners. Prior to working as a sharecropper, my father often leased the land and grew his own crops to sell. He did this because he didn't want any white man bossing his children. He knew how mean the whites were toward the blacks in Mississippi. Dad made good cotton crops during his time of leasing. But he could never get the same price the white plantation owners got for their bales. The cotton buyers even stopped buying Dad's cotton because it was produced by a black man. There was no alternative but to find a white man to sell it. So Dad got out of the leasing business.
Dad started working as a sharecropper in Schlater, Mississippi, for a man named John Ware. My father found him to be a fair and decent man. He stayed with Mr. Ware from the mid-1930s to 1945. Mr. Ware never cheated Dad out of his earnings. But in 1945, he sold his plantation to another white man, Mr. McShane. When Dad met with the new owner, he knew right away that he couldn't trust him. Although Dad had children older than him, Mr. McShane talked to Dad as if Dad were only a boy. So Dad let him know that he wouldn't be working for him. Mr. McShane's reaction was to send word to Dad asking him to move out of the house where he lived. Dad said that he wasn't going to move until he found a new home for his family — and that until that happened, no one else was going to move in with him either. Even the messenger who had brought Mr. McShane's request, my brother-in-law Wheeler Parker Sr., was frightened by Dad's reply. He wasn't afraid for Dad, but he was afraid to deliver Dad's message to the boss man.
Dad then moved us to a town called Money, where he became a sharecropper for the same man he had leased land from prior to sharecropping. His name was Grover Frederick, and Dad trusted him.
Dad realized that he could not take on the Jim Crow system of injustice and inhumane treatment directly, and certainly not alone. So he stayed out of the way of those whites who were dishonest and particularly hateful toward blacks. He only worked for honest and decent men.
Unlike us, Dad also never worked as a hired hand for other plantations. One particular plantation where my brothers and I picked cotton used unjust scales that did not register the weight accurately. One hundred pounds of cotton, which I used to pick by noon, would weigh in at seventy pounds. This was the Mississippi plantation owners' way of stealing from the black man's labor, just as their forebears had done during slavery. We suspected this plantation used what was called a "loaded pee." The pee was a weight that slid up the scale until it was balanced. If the pee wasn't loaded, you got an honest measurement; if the pee was loaded, meaning extra weight was added to it secretly, a dishonest measurement was produced in favor of the plantation owner.
Instead, Dad worked his forty acres of cotton and took care of his two gardens and a garden belonging to Mr. Frederick. We had heard of horror stories about other families working all year as sharecroppers, only to be told, "Sorry, you didn't make any money this year." They were often told that not only were there no profits but that they had come out in the hole. "Your crop did not produce enough to cover your expenses" was another comment we heard quite a bit. If there was no profit, only a deficit, we wondered how the boss could take 50 percent of nothing and build his beautiful home. But none of this ever happened to Dad, mainly because he was very careful and particular about whom he worked for. Mr. Frederick was fair and Dad cleared money every year. Not once was he told that he had come out in the hole.
I'm not exactly sure how Dad was so perceptive when it came to dealing with white landowners; it may have stemmed from a deep-seated suspicion that he shared with many other black farmers, given what they had seen happen to their fathers and grandfathers.
Dishonest whites had long used such tactics to accumulate wealth, bolster their way of living, and maintain a segregated South. All you could do was endure it. You couldn't run away. The only way to do that was to buy a car, which very few of us could afford; if you had one, you'd better have enough gas to keep going until you were out of the South, because there were no motels or hotels that accommodated blacks.
Even on the trains there was segregation. To share the same coach with a white person was out of the question. We had to sit in a certain car, a certain part of the train, until it crossed the Mississippi River into Cairo, Illinois. Only then could we move about, go to another car, or sit where we chose. Blacks and whites used separate washrooms during the journey. Segregation was also enforced on the buses: whites in the front, blacks in the back. (Of course, since we lived out in the country and Dad owned a car, riding a bus was not a part of our daily routine.)
There were all sorts of other ways of keeping us in our place — impoverished, without power, and under their thumbs. Basically, we were not free, could not choose our own destiny, and might as well have been living in South Africa under the apartheid regime rather than in America, the so-called land of the free and home of the brave. In the eyes of most white southerners, we were less than human and really didn't count. If you didn't live in the Jim Crow South, you'd think it was a fantasy, a horrible fairy tale. But I lived there a good part of my youth, struggling against the unjust laws, the unfair separation, and the brutal treatment, and it was all too real.
Some may ask how white people in the South could keep black Americans in subjection for so long. The violent system of Jim Crow laws was backed by the intimidation of the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens' Council, and other vicious segregationist groups. Any black person brave enough to violate this system was immediately confronted by angry white men, usually with murder on their minds. There was nothing more feared in the South than one of these lynch mobs, which was invariably protected by the sheriff and his deputies — when they weren't part of the mob themselves. For every courageous black man willing to speak out against the circumstances we faced, hundreds of white men were willing and able to make sure he paid the ultimate price. And when this form of injustice was supported by law enforcement officials — the sheriff and his deputies; the prosecutor or the judge — then the lynch mob knew it could murder a black man or woman without ever being brought to justice. So we "went along to git along," to quote an old saying.
I remember my father talking about the presidential elections in 1952, when Senator Adlai Stevenson of Illinois was running against General Dwight D. Eisenhower. We would listen to the news on the radio, and Dad was for Stevenson. He felt that the Democrats would give us a better deal than the Republicans. But no blacks went to vote. I wasn't aware at the time, but blacks were not allowed to vote unless they were able to overcome all kinds of obstacles, such as Jim Crows laws forcing them to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes. Vernon Dahmer, who, I later learned, led black voter registration drives in Mississippi in the 1960s, used to say, "If you don't vote, you don't count." For that, he was killed by members of the Klan.
Not much has been written about Dahmer, but a few of the folks in Argo, the Chicago suburb where I later lived, often talked about him, since they had relatives in the same region of Mississippi. Dahmer owned a store where black residents could pay their two-dollar poll taxes. For this audacity the Klan firebombed and shot up his home in 1966. Dahmer was seriously wounded and died the next day. It was not until 1998 that Sam Bowers, an Imperial Wizard of the Klan, was convicted of this crime by a multiracial jury and sentenced to life in prison.
I wish it were possible to say something about all those courageous freedom fighters who risked their lives so that others would have the right to vote. A couple of them stand out in my memory and should get more than just a few passing words.
Just a week before my cousin Emmett Till — we called him Bobo — came to visit us in 1955, Lamar Smith was murdered in Brookhaven, in the southern part of Mississippi. A group of white men, who had warned him to stop helping black residents to vote, gunned him down right in front of the courthouse. As he lay dying, he was still clutching some election leaflets in his hands. Smith refused to knuckle under or to be intimidated by the white mobs who threatened him.
Three men were arrested for the murder, but they were never brought to trial. Smith was just another black man gone. From the newspapers we learned that Medgar Evers had gotten involved in the case, which didn't surprise us, since he was the field representative for the state's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Dad had a lot of respect for him and the organization, but he knew they could only do so much against the Jim Crow system that controlled our lives.
In the spring, a few months earlier, the Reverend George Wesley Lee, who lived in Belzoni, not too far from us, was killed for his civil rights activism. Reverend Lee, like Dad, was a preacher who administered more than one congregation. He was also a very successful businessman and owner of a grocery store. The Klan had told him to remove his name from the voting rolls and to stop carrying out his campaign to register black voters. But Lee defied them. One evening he was driving home after picking up some clothes from the cleaners when a car filled with white men pulled up alongside him and blasted his car with three rounds of buckshot. The blast tore off half his face and sent the car careening into the front of a house. He staggered out of the crash but was dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. People talked about this case for quite a while, though no one was arrested for the crime. A grand jury was established to see if there were grounds for prosecution of the suspects, but it found none, an outcome that was expected. It was a rare day indeed when a white man was convicted of killing a black man, even a minister.
This deeply affected Dad. If they would kill a man of God, someone whose only interest was to spread the Word and to comfort the sick, then nobody's life was safe.
These murders and an untold number of other lynchings were part of our daily lives. Most black people where we lived had grown accustomed to the Klan and other night riders. It was the kind of powerlessness that kept folks in their place; even so, there were exceptions to the rule, and I think the Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, and Medgar Evers were cut from a different mold. Dad, too, was like them, and he might have done more if he hadn't feared jeopardizing his large family if he became too outspoken.
When we finally gained access to the ballot box, things began to change. Now whites began to worry and to complain about how things were changing, and they were fearful that the power they had would gradually disappear. Even more astonishing, they charged us with being the racists, claimed that we were the bigoted and prejudiced ones. Most of us knew it was useless debating the issue. Nowadays you hear a lot about reverse discrimination. But this may have been the very beginning of that kind of talk, right in the heart of Ku Klux Klan land.
And then there was the Supreme Court's 1954 decision, in Brown v. Board of Education, to outlaw segregation in the schools. Mississippi, like so many other southern states, seemed to have a thick immunity to laws or judgments that would dare to promote integration. There were times when we could play with white kids, but going to school with them was another thing. Jim Crow had been around so long that even in his old age there were some things that he was not about to relinquish, not about to change.
One of the signs posted in Mississippi read: "Nigger read and run, and if you can't read, run anyway." There were places where warnings such as "Don't let the sun go down on you in this town" were commonplace, and the majority of black residents knew exactly what they meant. They were not about to violate the written or unwritten laws of white supremacy.
Excerpted from Simeon's Story by Simeon Wright, Herb Boyd. Copyright © 2010 Simeon Wright and Herb Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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