1. SURE BUGS ME
THE CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION AND THE FAILURES OF THE 1950s
When fourteen-year-old John Lewis opened the paper on May 16, 1954, the headline stunned him: the Supreme Court had declared segregated schools unconstitutional. He could not believe it. Separate schools were one of the cornerstones of southern segregation. He felt his world “turned upside down.” He was sure he would be attending an integrated school that coming September, a mere four months away. But Lewis’s hopes would be dashed by a school desegregation process that saw only about one in one hundred black students enter white schools by 1960. Lewis’s broken dream captured in a microcosm how the 1950s teased young African Americans with the unrealized promise of racial change.1
The Supreme Court decision that shocked Lewis was actually the culmination of a twenty-year legal odyssey begun by Charles Hamilton Houston, the chief architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy and the former dean of Howard University’s law school. At the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Houston built a fraternity of shrewd and courageous lawyers that included Thurgood Marshall, his best student at Howard. During the 1930s and 1940s, Legal Defense Fund lawyers had attacked the soft underbelly of segregation—the failure of white southerners to make separate truly equal—through a series of lawsuits. Starting with the most glaring examples of discrimination in higher education, NAACP lawyers chipped away at Jim Crow. First they forced the establishment of separate graduate programs for African Americans and then the admission of blacks into white programs.
Next they tackled inequality in grade schools, forcing southern states to spend millions of dollars to provide the same pay to all teachers regardless of race and to raise the quality of black facilities. The equalization campaign was so successful, in fact, that by 1950 the NAACP took only cases that challenged segregation directly.2
Smart lawyers and creative legal thinking were only part of the story, however; good lawyers needed good clients. Concerned that a loss would do more to reinforce the legality of segregation than ten wins would do to undermine it, they avoided many cases, especially those originating in rural areas where white resis tance was strongest.
So when Barbara Johns, a determined sixteen-year-old who led her classmates at the all-black high school in Prince Edward County on a strike for better schools, asked Oliver Hill, the chief NAACP lawyer in Virginia, to take their case, he was not optimistic. The rural county was known for its strong support of segregation. Still, he agreed to meet with them and, impressed by their passion and determination, agreed to take the case on the condition that the students scrapped their demand for better schools and attacked segregation head-on. Less than one month later, on May 23, 1951, Hill fi led suit challenging segregated education in Prince Edward County, and it would soon be combined with the Brown case in Topeka and three others to make up the five different suits consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education for the Supreme Court hearing.3
Almost three years to the day later, the nine justices of the Supreme Court announced their decision in Brown. The unusually brief opinion strongly denounced school segregation. It argued that education was the most important function of state and local governments, central to a dem o cratic society and the “foundation of good citizenship.” To exclude young African Americans from white schools was more than simply a violation of equal protection; segregated education generated “a feeling of inferiority” that permanently scarred their “hearts and minds.”4
The Court’s rhetoric may have been strong, but its actions were tempered. Instead of ordering the immediate integration of the South’s segregated schools or even the immediate integration of the schools involved in Brown, the Court postponed any action for a year to allow the South time to adjust. Acceptance was crucial for Chief Justice Earl Warren; he believed the mechanics of integration would come relatively easily once southerners accepted the idea that segregation was unconstitutional.5
One year later, on May 31, 1955, the Supreme Court enshrined caution as law. Brown II, as the implementation decree is usually called, was again brief and to the point. Federal judges would consider desegregation requests on a community-by-community basis. The Court offered no specific guidance on how long the process of ending segregation should take; nor did it set an end date. Instead, the Court instructed white officials “to make a prompt and reasonable start toward” ending school segregation and advised judges to make sure it happened “with all deliberate speed.” Any delays should clearly benefit the public and be in the spirit of “good faith” compliance with the Brown decision.6
“All deliberate speed” robbed black activists at the local level of the issue of school desegregation in important ways. Courts were slow. Courts were abstract. Hearings were long and boring. The Supreme Court had made the implementation of the basic constitutional rights of African Americans a negotiated process overseen by lower federal courts; black rights would be balanced against white anxiety in designing desegregation plans. By keeping the issue in the courts, school desegregation could not become the focal point of mass protest. Except for a few dramatic incidents that punctuated the years after Brown, school desegregation played a surprisingly peripheral role during the heyday of the movement in the 1960s.
Julian Bond was both less surprised by and less excited about the Brown decision than John Lewis. He saw the Supreme Court decision as ratifying the positive parts of his experience at George, the integrated private school he attended in Pennsylvania, and as confi rming his optimistic hope that racial differences were becoming less important. His parents were doubtful about the speed of change when they discussed the decision at the dinner table. But as 1954 gave way to 1955 and then 1956, Bond became unsure about the ability of the American dem o cratic system to reform itself. He saw how the Court’s decision had deferred action and emboldened white southerners. As the only black student at an all-white prep school, he understood how wide the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American democracy could be.
The slow pace of change also frustrated Lewis as he searched in vain for news of Alabama’s desegregation plans. In some ways more naïve than Bond, Lewis really believed that desegregation was around the corner. But state officials never announced a plan for integration. In fact, no school desegregation of any kind would occur in Alabama until the 1963–64 school year, when 21 of a possible 293,476 black students attended their first classes with whites. In the late summer of 1955, fifteen-year-old John Lewis came across a story in the newspaper that had a much more immediate and depressing impact on his life.7
As the summer of 1955 wound down, two fourteen-year-old cousins, Emmett Till and Wheeler Parker, begged their parents to let them go to Mississippi for a vacation. Their hometown of Chicago had been mercilessly hot, and the boys were itching to get some fresh air, to fi sh along the Tallahatchie, to just get outside. After much pleading, their parents agreed they could spend the last two weeks of the summer in Mississippi at their great-uncle Moses Wright’s farm.8
Till and Wheeler’s trip was not unusual. Many northern blacks sent their children back down South to visit relatives during the summer. Both of Emmett Till’s parents had been reared in the South. Louis Till, Emmett’s father, had died in Europe during World War II. Having emigrated to Chicago, Mamie Till Bradley made a good living as a civilian employee of the air force, and she and Emmett lived a comfortable middle-class life on the South Side.9
Emmett Till was a study in teenage contradictions. His mother described him as well mannered, polite, and good-natured; his friends saw him as spirited, boastful, and rambunctious. While his mother talked about his church attendance, his friends mentioned his drive to be the center of attention. Childhood polio had left him with a slight stutter. Still, Emmett was confident and something of a dandy; on one pinky he sported a gold signet ring with the initials LT in honor of his father. In short, he was a typical fourteen-year-old, basically a good kid but still trying to sort out who he was, to walk that fine line between pleasing his mother and fi tting in.10
On August 24, only a few days after arriving in Mississippi on the train, Till, his cousin, and a few other local kids were doing what American teens have done since the invention of the automobile— cruising aimlessly, trying to gin up a little fun on a quiet summer night. The group pulled up in front of the Money General Store, a little store that served a mostly black clientele and was a popular place to hang out. Money, Mississippi, was not much of a town, really just a post office, a gas station, and a cotton-ginning station. When their car pulled up, a dozen kids, mostly boys, were already milling about in front.11
As they sat outside in the hot summer air, the joking and the bragging went around fast and furious. Till bragged about his white girlfriend back in Chicago, but the teens were skeptical. Someone in the group dared him to prove his story by talking to the white woman working behind the counter. Caught in the web of his own boasts, Emmett did what any brash teenager would do: he went inside.
No one knows exactly what happened next. The most repeated version of events comes from Carolyn Bryant, the woman behind the counter that night. Till bought two cents’ worth of bubble gum. He then grabbed Bryant’s hand, asking “How about a date, baby?” As she tried to back away, Till grabbed her by the waist. “Don’t be afraid of me, baby. I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’ve been with white girls before.” At that point, someone in the group outside—they had been watching through the window—rushed in to grab Till. Bryant went for a gun in her sister-in-law’s car behind the store. As Till’s friends hustled him out, he said “Bye, baby” and possibly wolf-whistled, though others in the group dispute this.
The racial code of the Deep South was such that what had actually happened mattered less than local perceptions. When the story spread, Bryant’s tenuous position in the community was at stake. The Bryants were at the bottom of white society, just eking out a marginal income at the store selling small goods and food to local blacks. As Roy Bryant admitted later, he needed to “whip the nigger’s ass” or other whites would think he was a coward or a fool.
Bryant recounted how he and his brother-in-law J. W. Milam went over to Moses Wright’s place and hauled Till out of bed.
“You the nigger who did the talking?”
“Yeah,” answered Till.
“Don’t say ‘Yeah’ to me. I’ll blow your head off,” Milam said.
He ordered Till to get dressed. Till even started to put on his socks before Milam stopped him.
Bryant and Milam put Till in the back of the pickup and drove off. They intended to whip Till “and scare some sense” into him by dangling him over a cliff that dropped one hundred feet into the Tallahatchie River. But they got lost, driv ing around in circles for three hours, and returned to Milam’s house.
They took Till out to a toolshed in back and started pistol-whipping him with Milam’s old army .45-caliber gun.
Till stood up to the men. “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.”
Milam was dumbfounded. “‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of your kind coming down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
They put Till back in the truck and drove over to a cotton-gin company to grab a discarded gin fan that weighed seventy-four pounds. They made Till put it in the back of the truck, and then they drove to a deserted spot on the Tallahatchie River where Milam sometimes hunted. The men ordered Till to strip naked.
“You still as good as I am?” Milam asked.
“You still had white women?”
Bang. Milam shot Till in the head at point-blank range. He was probably dead before he hit the ground. They tied the body to the gin fan with barbed wire and rolled him into a deep part of the river. It was just before seven a.m. on Sunday.
Three days later a fisherman saw two feet poking out of the water and reeled in a bloated, distended body. It would have been impossible to identify it as Emmett Till if not for the telltale gold signet ring on one pinky inscribed LT.
To this point, the story is a depressingly familiar tale from the Deep South. The abduction and murder of a young African-American man was not an uncommon occurrence, and from time to time the bodies of unknown African Americans bobbled up from the South’s swamps and rivers. In fact, if Milam and Bryant had done a better job disposing of the body, the local sheriffs would have dismissed his disappearance as simply that of a young boy who ran away; his family would never have learned what happened to him, and few people would ever have heard the name Emmett Till.
But the murder of Emmett Till became a national sensation. The potent cocktail of sex, race, and death in Till’s lynching reinforced the nation’s image of the Deep South as a gothic and sinister place out of step with national norms. Mixed with lurid speculations about the facts of the case were condemnations of the South’s violence and cries for justice.
On September 2, Emmett Till’s body arrived back in Chicago in a casket nailed shut at the insistence of Mississippi authorities. Mamie Till Bradley dropped to her knees to pray: “Lord take my soul, show me what you want me to do, and make me able to do it.” Bradley told the funeral director that if he did not help her open the box, she would take a hammer to open it herself. As the coffin was pried open, the horrible odor of river water and rotting fl esh flooded the room. “I was forced to deal with his face,” his mother said. “I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was lying midway on his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places.” The mortician told Till’s mother that he could fix up the body for public viewing. “No, Mr. Rayner, let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told him.
Over the next three days, perhaps as many as fifty thousand people came to the funeral home for the wake and viewed Emmett’s body. The crowds were so thick that mourners fi led past four abreast, and the doors stayed open until two in the morning. One of Emmett’s classmates recalls filing past the glass-covered casket and being shocked that his friend looked “like a monster.”12
A week after the funeral, Jet, a magazine for black readers, published photos of Till’s mutilated corpse. A few days later, so did the Chicago Defender, the city’s black paper, followed by other papers. It’s hard now to convey the sensation created by those photographs or to overestimate their impact. Just as the Abu Ghraib prison photos in 2004 turned an abstract story about military abuse in Iraq into a national scandal, the photos of Till turned the hidden and abstract problem of white violence in the South into a tangible story easily grasped by most Americans. By moving the question of lynching out of the South, Till’s death forced northerners, white and black, to pay attention to what was going on in the ex-Confederate states.
White Mississippians could not ignore the calls for justice. In early September, Bryant and Milam were indicted for Till’s murder. Despite Moses Wright’s dramatic courtroom identification of the killers, the jury took just one hour and seven minutes to return a verdict of not guilty. Later, Mississippi offi cials declined to prosecute the two men for kidnapping—the one crime they had actually confessed to committing.
On the heels of the acquittal, the two men sold their story to a reporter from Look magazine for about four thousand dollars in the hope of countering the sympathetic coverage of Mamie Bradley. Their Emmett Till was impudent to the end, which suggests that if only Till had known his place, he would still be alive. The dueling media stories—Mamie Bradley’s in Jet, the two men’s in Look—set in place a pattern that would recur throughout the subsequent struggle for racial justice. Civil rights activists used the media deftly, segregationists awkwardly and ineffectively. Rather than making northerners more sympathetic to the men—and by extension to segregation—the story simply reinforced the brutality of the crime. The more exposure Americans had to segregation, the more they disliked it.13
Till’s lynching punctured the optimism of young African Americans. To this day, Julian Bond’s memories “are exact and parallel those of many others my age—I felt vulnerable for the first time in my life— Till was a year younger,” and Bond believed “that this could easily happen to me—for no reason at all.” John Lewis had the same thought, “that it could have been me . . . at the bottom of the river.” It defl ated any enthusiasm he had for the Brown decision. “It didn’t seem that the Supreme Court mattered. It didn’t seem that the American principles . . . I read in beat-up civics books mattered . . . They didn’t matter to the men who killed Emmett Till.”
On the streets of Stokely Carmichael’s white Bronx neighborhood, his neighbors did not talk about the case; he first learned about it by listening to the gossip at his Harlem barbershop. Cleveland Sellers, who would become one of Carmichael’s best friends in SNCC, remembers finding out the same way in his little South Carolina town. “For weeks after it happened . . . it was impossible to go into a barber shop or corner grocery without hearing” talk about the murder. The case haunted Sellers as he tried to imagine how he would have responded to Bryant and Milam on the banks of the river; other times he would get angry dwelling on how the killers had escaped punishment.14
Parents worried about Till’s lynching, not because they feared for their own safety, but because it destroyed the illusion of safety they had created for their children. In Chicago, Diane Nash’s parents lectured her more forcefully to be careful and watched her more strictly in the months after the murder. They would not let her see Till’s body, but she remembers how the story hung over her home and neighborhood, shattering the illusion that middle-class blacks in the North were insulated from southern racism. Nash and her friends, who usually paid little attention to current events, followed the Till story closely. No one wanted to discuss the murder directly, but it came up all the time.
Bond’s parents, Nash’s parents, Carmichael’s parents, had all convinced themselves that middle-class prosperity and exposure to white society could insulate their children from the harshest aspects of American racism. The Till murder shattered that illusion. Soon after the murder, Carmichael’s mother reacted with alarm when she saw her son walking home from Sunday school in a group that included white boys and white girls. With increasing anxiety, she told him to forget about white women like “a bullfrog forgot his tail.”15
For young African Americans, especially those entering into the emerging mainstream of the new youth culture and middle-class consumerism, Emmett Till overshadowed every thing else that happened during the 1950s. It scared them, erasing the distance between the violence of Jim Crow and their lives, pushing the nominal gains of Brown to the sidelines. The murder hung over the rest of their youth, a bad memory that would not go away. If it scared them, it also made them more aware. They subtly came to understand something that Martin Luther King would articulate eloquently a few years later: “Injustice anywhere threatens justice every where.”16
Even the stirring emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., onto the national stage just five months after Emmett Till’s funeral did not fully shake the unease of young African Americans. It did, however, provide a counterpoint to the failures of Brown and the horrors of Till’s death. The Montgomery bus boycott that thrust King into the spotlight was the first great orga nized protest of the southern civil rights movement; it foreshadowed the effectiveness of collective action in the fight against segregation and made King, just twenty-six years old, internationally famous.
The idea of a bus boycott had been percolating in Montgomery for some time. Both the head of the local branch of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union and the head of the Women’s Political Council suggested protesting the treatment of black riders on the city’s buses. The Women’s Political Council had been particularly active since its formation in 1949, registering so many new African-Americans voters that they were now the swing constituency between two nearly equally divided white factions. Black leaders saw the boycott as a bargaining chip, demonstrating the growing economic and political power of the city’s African-American residents.17
Rosa Parks was deeply enmeshed in Montgomery’s black politics. She had been a member of the local NAACP branch since 1943 and was an acquaintance of Ella Baker. In the summer of 1955, she attended a conference at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a little institution that had a hand in training just about every important movement activist during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. So when Rosa Parks decided not to give up her bus seat on December 1, 1955, it may have been a spur-of-the-moment decision; it was not, however, a random one.18
The idea of a boycott quickly coalesced. The Women’s Political Council staged a one-day boycott on December 5, and the next day a coalition of black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to continue the boycott. Divisions among the city’s blacks, especially between union activists and clergy, threatened to undermine their unity. As a compromise, King, newly appointed pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was picked to head the group. No one had any real inkling of King as a leader; he just had not been in Montgomery long enough to make many enemies.19
At the beginning of the boycott, African Americans’ tactics and strategy remained unsettled. With King’s selection, the clergy took a central role in the boycott. Because black preachers play such a prominent role in the mythology of the movement, it is easy to assume that was inevitable. In fact, secular orga ni za tions like the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Women’s Political Council had been the principal engines of civil rights activism.
The initial black demands were cautious, seeking to make segregation fairer, not to eliminate it, reflecting a belief that the end of segregation would be a gradual process of negotiation, worked out through politics, not through a quick strike of protest. The boycotters
Excerpted from Shadows of Youth by Andrew B. Lewis.
Copyright © 2009 by Andrew B. Lewis.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
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