“In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose. What we want most to be, we are.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
My husband and I recently tooled across the Mississippi Delta with its acres and acres of lush corn and soy. Queen Anne’s Lace and Black-eyed Susans, wild and proud, speckled the roadsides. A hawk glided across the skies. The landscape was striking.
On the surface, at least. It took little scratching to uncover the darkness of this land—the poverty, violence, death. A poet would expound on its close resemblance to the depth of the human heart. But I’m no poet.
My first surprise was to find ourselves in northwestern Mississippi and not at the mouth of the river near New Orleans. The area is not a true delta. It’s an alluvial plain, created by the flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers over thousands of years. The flat stretches of land are considered the richest in the world with topsoil three hundred fifty feet deep. The flourishing fields were a testament to that.
Yet, the counties within its boundaries are some of the poorest in the nation, with poverty rates as high as forty percent. I’ll leave it to historians and sociologists to explain, but suffice it to say many of the residents are descendants of slaves who became sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
Delta blues music was born here. Riding down the roads, you can imagine the wail of harmonicas, twang of guitars, and gravelly voices bemoaning their day-to-day struggles. Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, and Lead Belly with songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do,” and “Alberta” embody the struggles of the people and their determination to survive in spite of them.
Then came Glendora, Mississippi, a Delta village of two hundred with a 40% poverty rate. The home of “Sonny Boy” Williamson, King of the Harmonica. Site of the 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till.
We drove the short distance from the highway to Glendora in search of the Emmett Till museum. The village was as one would expect, run down and tired. In the June heat, a young man sauntered along the middle of the railroad tracks. An older woman strolled down a side road. The museum was not immediately obvious and driving around felt awkward, as though we were there to gawk.
My husband pulled up next to the woman and asked where to find the place. In a most friendly manner, she directed us down a smaller dirt road. At the end sat a large metal building that had once been a cotton gin owned by the two men who murdered Emmett Till. It now tells the boy’s story.
Inside, a video and several displays explain how Emmett Till traveled from Chicago to visit his great uncle, Moses Wright, for the summer. Despite warnings, the boy was perhaps a little cocky coming from the city to the country and, while buying candy at a store three miles away, whistled at the white woman who ran it, Carolyn Bryant. In the age of open beatings and lynchings, this was a deadly decision.
Four days later, Carolyn’s husband and brother-in-law came to Moses’s house in the middle of the night and dragged the boy from his bed. His aunt and uncle pleaded for the boy, citing his ignorance of their ways and offered money, but the men’s warped sense of honor would have none of it. The brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, had been heard boasting of his ability to handle blacks.
What they did, though, was nothing short of evil. They drove him around for hours as they beat him, cut off his ear, chopped off his nose with a hatchet, and shot him three times, once in the head. They returned to Glendora’s gin and hauled out a huge fan, tying it around Emmett’s neck with barbed wire. His body was then driven a short distance to the Black Bayou, a tributary of the Tallahatchie River, and dumped over the bridge.
We visited this bridge across the swamp. The air grew closer as we neared it, stepped over its crumbling asphalt, and onto the bridge itself. Wildflowers grew through the old roadway, trying to hide the horror. It didn’t work. We had scratched that surface and seen the evil beneath.
Days later, Emmett Till’s body was recovered downstream in the Tallahatchie. In 2019, the fourth marker was dedicated to the location. The first three were either stolen or shot up until the words were obliterated. The newest one is bulletproof.
Emmett’s mother, with courage beyond comprehension to most of us, insisted his body be returned to her in Chicago and viewed in an open casket. Her strength opened America’s eyes to the brutality that had existed for African Americans throughout the centuries and set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.
So, why did we go and relive such a monstrous event?
For the same reason Holocaust survivors have urged us to “Never forget.” We cannot open our eyes to the beauty of America while refusing to see its depravities. That childlike attitude can only hold us back. In acknowledging and remembering the past, we move to a more humane future. I will never forget.