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A Catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement

Charlie Wingard

Charlie Wingard

Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Yazoo City, Mississippi

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Sixty years ago this summer, two men removed a seventy-four pound fan (used for ginning cotton) from this building. After torturing and murdering fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, they wrapped barbed wire around his neck and the fan, and dumped them into Tallahatchie River. The young black teenager’s alleged whistling at a white woman at Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in nearby Money, Mississippi set in motion the events that led to his abduction and death.

The cotton gin, located in Glendora, Mississippi, now houses the The Emmett Till Museum. Lynne and I visited several years ago when the museum was closed. During our visit to the Delta yesterday, we were able to return and view its sobering exhibits.

In August 1955 Mamie Till put her happy son on a train bound from Chicago to visit family in the Mississippi Delta. He was returned to her in a pine coffin. After viewing her son’s grotesquely mutilated face, she directed he receive an open-casket funeral, a decision that had far-reaching consequences. Pictures of Emmett Till – the smiling young boy and the savagely beaten corpse – were transmitted around the world. The historical marker at the site of Bryant’s Grocery continues the story:

News of the murder and the trial that followed outraged black and sympathetic white Americans, and the case became a catalyst for the American civil rights movement. . . . on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott. When asked why she did not go to the back of the bus after being threatened with arrest, she said she thought of Emmett Till, and she couldn’t go back.

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were charged, tried, and acquitted of Emmett Till’s murder by an all-white jury. Shortly thereafter, they confessed to the crime in a Look magazine interview, for which they received $4,000. Double jeopardy protection shielded them from retrial.

For information about the Emmett Till murder, watch this episode of PBS’s American Experience.

Glendora, Mississippi is three hours northwest of Jackson. I encourage RTS students to make the trip and visit the Emmett Till Museum.

 

 


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