For Better or Worse, How Mississippi Remembers Emmett Till
W. Ralph Eubanks and Dave Tell on the Legacy of a Murder
“The past is never dead.”
William Faulkner’s incisive observation is invoked so frequently when talking about the American South that it now induces a groan. But Faulkner’s conjoined observation takes us past cliché closer to a reckoning, and elicits a nod: “It’s not even past.” Faulkner had a propensity to show how the debris of our lives are the casualties of the histories that shape them, and that spirit drives this conversation between W. Ralph Eubanks and Dave Tell, who’ve been working, respectively, on books focused on the Mississippi Delta and the way Emmett Till is remembered, and explore through their subjects the ties that bind us to each other, and that tether us to a past all too hard to escape or even come to terms with.
With recent news reports that bullet holes now riddle the marker of the site where Emmett Till’s mangled body was pulled from a river over 60 years ago, Ralph and Dave decided to look at that sign to see how its vandalism points to a neglect and brutality and unruliness that reaches far beyond the ground on which it stands. With an attention to irony that too often characterizes the story—“irony and the South have never been strangers,” Ralph, invoking historian C. Vann Woodward, declares at the outset—they unpack the symbolism of that damaged sign and the complicated relationships and history it stands for.
–Garnette Cadogan, Literary Hub contributing editor
As you know, the Mississippi Delta holds a curiously complicated yet monumental place in the culture of the American South. It’s been described in so many ways, that together the various characterizations create a tapestry of images. One moment the Delta is a place in a Paul Simon song that gleams like a national guitar, and another moment it is a torrid landscape mercilessly obsessed with race and cotton, yet gripped by a volatile mix of poverty and oppression. To some, it is the most southern place on earth, and to others it represents everything wrong with the region. Hailed as the birthplace of the blues, to many outside of Mississippi, it exists more as an idea or symbol than an actual place.
It is the symbolic Delta that I think is the place to begin. And we must keep in mind that the history and development of the Delta mirrors the imagination of the South as well as the region’s creation myth. For some, the Delta is a place that magically rose out of a tangled wilderness, much like the mansion Sutpen’s Hundred did in William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner’s tragic character Quentin Compson observed that the mansion’s owner Thomas Sutpen would “…watch his mansion rise, carried plank by plank and brick by brick out of the swamp where the clay and timber waited.” That is remarkably similar to the way many Mississippians think about the teardrop-shaped 7,000 square miles of land now called the Delta.
I love your invocation of Delta creation myths. If the Delta is primarily a symbolic place, the meaning of that symbol has turned, in no small measure, on the unceasing commemoration of Emmett Till’s murder. By April of 1956, only eight months after the murder, the Delta had already become, in the words of Ebony’s Clotye Murdock, “the land of Till’s murder.” “In lands far distant from America,” she mused, where “Mississippi” is little more than the name of a distant jurisdiction (“a state or a city or a province—many know not which”), people nonetheless “frown in bewilderment” at the mention of Mississippi: “Is that not the place where the Negro boy was killed?”
This was only the beginning. For six decades, the symbol that is Mississippi has been sharpened, redirected, and appropriated by the memory of Till’s murder. From the NAACP’s “M is for Murder and Mississippi,” to Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Emmett Till,” to Gwendolyn Brook’s haunting ability to cast Carolyn Bryant in the role of a “Mississippi Mother,” the meaning of Mississippi has repeatedly slipped in and out of the meaning of Emmett Till. As Dylan put it, “Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.”
July 1, 2005 marked a shift in the relationship between Till commemoration and the meaning of Mississippi. For the first time, Till commemoration shaped not only Mississippi-the-symbol; it also shaped Mississippi-the-actual-place. After 49 years and 11 months without a single built memorial to Till’s memory anywhere in the state, two blue roadside markers were erected 30 miles from each other outside the towns of Greenwood and Tutwiler. The occasion was the dedication of a 30-mile stretch of Highway 49E as the “Emmett Till Memorial Highway.” A symbolic gesture, to be sure, but the dedication gave the memory of Emmett Till something it never had before: a material presence on the landscape of the Delta. The built environment had suddenly been altered alongside the symbol that is Mississippi.
The highway was only the beginning. Since 2005, upwards of five million dollars has been invested in the creation of an entire commemorative infrastructure. There are now nearly a dozen roadside markers, a museum, an interpretive center, and a walking path. The courthouse which once housed the trial of Till murderers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant has been beautifully restored and now operates as a functional courthouse and an equally functional memorial. If the memory of Emmett Till has long given meaning to the symbol that is Mississippi, since 2005 it has also given shape to the Delta’s built environment.
All the best,
Mississippi is a place caught between memory and forgetting. Next year, Mississippi will open the first state-sponsored civil rights museum in the country, the year of the state’s bicentennial. While public displays that acknowledge the state’s dark past are ever present, elements of that same past keep rising up in the present. Since the murder of Emmett Till, the Delta has become a place with shifting meanings ascribed to it, as it struggles to find a place to fit into an evolving South, one that contends with national as well as global forces. But it is still a place that carries the heavy weight of its history and can’t seem to break free of it. Like it or not, Emmett Till is part of that history. And destroying the sign that marks where his body was found is a feeble attempt at minimizing and marginalizing that history. While road signs are often shot up by bored young men as pranks around this state, one cannot ignore the symbolism of the bullet holes pockmarking that landmark site. The vandalism is inexcusable.
The Delta is a fixation of mine because of my personal history. My father, armed with a degree in agronomy from Tuskegee Institute, moved to the Delta hamlet of Mileston in 1949 to teach farming techniques to former sharecroppers who became landowners thanks to a federal program sponsored by the Farm Security Administration. From the time I was about seven, each year he took me with him on a trip to the Delta to visit old friends. As a child, I thought of the Delta as a place to escape to. But my mother’s memory of her time living in the Delta—she joined my father there in 1952—make clear it was actually a place my family escaped from.
There were few black landowners in the Delta, and my father did not want his land-owning ambitions to be met with hostility, as he had witnessed during his time working in Mileston. By the time my family left in 1956—in the wake of the Emmett Till murder and trial—everyday life in Delta towns was so tense that any black person who pushed too hard was a target. That led my parents to leave for South Mississippi, a place with a black landowning tradition. Some even said that it was open season on Negroes in the Delta, especially uppity, ambitious ones like my parents. Perhaps that is why when my mother stayed behind after my father began his new job in South Mississippi, the white town doctor urged my mother to leave as soon as she could, never explaining why. “Trust me, please just go,” he quietly cautioned my mother during a routine visit. To this day, she is certain his push for her to leave may have saved her life.
Had my parents stayed in the town of Mileston, where their married life began, the trajectory of my life probably would have been completely different. The Delta would feel much more viscerally real rather than symbolic. And this has become painfully clear to me since I have been back here in Mississippi as a visiting professor. Like my father, I can’t get myself free of the Delta and visit there often. What I have found is that the endless fields of the Mississippi Delta have a way of magically transporting a traveler into the past, placing you in the middle of one of those black-and-white photographs taken of this landscape by Marian Post Wolcott during the Great Depression. There is a timelessness about the Delta, as if the Great Depression never unchained its grasp on the people and the place in spite of changes in American politics and economics. But what lies beneath the surface of what the eye sees on visiting the Delta is the issue of race. And you can’t talk about race and the Delta without confronting the ghost of Emmett Till.
Last semester in my class on civil rights and literature at Millsaps College, I taught the novel Wolf Whistle, by Delta native and Millsaps graduate Lewis Nordan. In Wolf Whistle, Nordan writes about the Emmett Till murder from a fictional perspective and through the darkness of that event writes, “The Mississippi Delta is not always dark with rain. Some autumn mornings, the sun rises over Moon Lake, or Eagle, or Choctaw, or Blue, or Roebuck, all the wide, deep waters of the state, and when it does, its dawn is as rosy with promise and hope as any other.” On some trips to the Delta I feel that hope. But more often than not, I am gripped by a feeling of hopelessness.
I’m off now for a day of teaching, including a bit of Flannery O’Connor. There’s nothing like the Christ-haunted South of O’Connor to get students moving in the morning.
I discovered the Mississippi Delta and the civil rights movement at the same time. In 2003. I was a 27-year-old product of west coast suburbia fumbling toward a Ph.D. in the field of Communication. I had chosen the American practice of “public confession” as a dissertation topic and, in the course of my research, stumbled upon the January 1956 issue of LOOK magazine. It contained a confession to the murder of Emmett Till.
I ignored it. Although it was framed as a confession, I quickly realized that it was no such thing. It contained no apology, no ethos of guilt or shame, no penitence, and no contrition. It had none of the various literary markers by which I had been trained to recognize and classify the genre of confession.
But LOOK’s account of Till’s murder haunted me. Its brazen, play-by-play rehearsal of violence put into the voice of Till killer J.W. Milam would not leave me alone. Eventually, I changed my dissertation topic. I now focused on texts that were treated as confessions for political reasons. In the case of LOOK, I learned that the white southern establishment needed a sanitized version of the murder and the NAACP needed evidence with which to press for a grand jury. In a moment of unlikely collusion, both sides found it in their best interests to call the LOOK exposé a “confession.” It has been one ever since.
It was not until I traveled to the Delta in the summer of 2014 that I realized the concrete ways in which the exposé-turned-confession had shaped the Mississippi Delta. Thanks to good fortune and good friends, I found myself touring the sites of Till’s murder with Simeon Wright (Till’s cousin who shared a bed with him the night of his abduction), Dale Killinger (FBI special agent for Till research), Patrick Weems (local community organizer), and historians Devery Anderson and Davis Houck.
By 2014, the Delta was planted in Till memorials. After touring the well-marked sites, we headed 30 miles west to a rural barn outside of Drew, Mississippi in Sunflower County. Once managed by J. W. Milam’s brother Leslie, the barn has a small bay at its north end where Emmett Till was tortured for four hours on the night of August 28, 1955. By the time his body was placed in the truck of J. W. Milam to be carried back to the Tallahatchie River, he was either dead or beaten beyond consciousness. Eye-witnesses report that his cries had ceased and his body fallen limp.
There was nothing to mark the significance of the site. Were it not for the company I kept, I never would have known that the civil rights movement edged closer because of what happened in that Sunflower County barn. There was not a roadside marker anywhere in site. As a group, we had just visited Emmett Till markers dedicated to relatively minor sites (like a juke joint where a reporter was tipped off), but this site, the site where Till died, remained (and remains) unmarked on the private property of a dentist outside of Drew.
LOOK magazine required that each named participant in their story sign a legal release. Because Leslie Milam did not enjoy the protections of double jeopardy, he did not sign a release form and he could not be mentioned in the story. So LOOK moved the murder site 16.5 miles east to an abandoned spot of riverbank in Tallahatchie County. The impact of that editorial decision on the landscape of the Mississippi Delta is difficult to exaggerate. Every map of Emmett Till’s murder published between 1956 and 2005, between the LOOK account and the FBI report, left Sunflower County off the map entirely. To this day, Sunflower County is the only relevant county without a single built memorial to Till’s murder. By contrast, although Till was neither kidnapped, nor tortured, nor killed, nor recovered in Tallahatchie County, the latter boasts eight roadside markers and two Till museums. It makes me wonder whose version of the story is being commemorated.
It also makes me wonder about the landscape of the Delta and its occasional signage. It turns out that this landscape reflects not merely the history of Emmett Till, but also the history of telling stories about Emmett Till. In the wake of Keith Beauchamp’s 2005 documentary and the FBI’s 2006 report, the LOOK account has been entirely discredited. Yet, however discredited it may be, its story is still retold on the commemorative landscape of the Delta.
Mississippians have always lived in a self-contained world and that is reflected in the way its people frame and tell stories. Traces of Emmett Till’s story may not exist on the physical landscape of Sunflower County, but it is commemorated in a place that was willing to own it and accept it. Tallahatchie County may have remade Till in its own image, but it also seems to love and claim the meaning of his life the strongest. And sometimes in the South that is the best you can hope for. In a place like the Delta—one that already possesses a tenuous relationship with truth—memory and imagination holds more power than fact.
There are many ways of looking at Emmett Till and the meaning of his life, so it is no wonder that the narrative surrounding his death has taken so many divergent paths. Since Till’s grisly murder, how he is portrayed has been a constant point of contention. The control of the narrative began with the state of Mississippi, from the moment an arrogant act of state sovereignty led officials to place an official seal on the casket bearing his mangled body and ordered that it not be opened. Almost from the moment Till’s mother, Mamie, ordered that official seal broken, the story has flowed in myriad directions. But in Mississippi it only flowed two ways: black and white.
Black Mississippians know Till’s story almost from the day they are born. As a black man who grew up during the civil rights movement—and whose family left the Delta in the wake of Till’s murder and trial—the tendrils of Till’s story feel wrapped around the root of my very being. I grew up not only knowing about Emmett Till, but also thinking his story could become my own. It wasn’t until my years at Ole Miss that I learned that white Mississippians learn about Till’s story much later, since it evokes feelings of either shame or denial.
With Mississippian’s relationship with Till’s story divided along racial lines, it’s no wonder the narrative has become so tangled and sometime circuitous. For many years, white denial controlled the narrative more than black identification with Till’s story. In the past decade that has shifted, but the recent vandalism of the markers commemorating Till have led me to wonder how many Mississippians still want Till’s story to be wrapped in myth and denial, with an official seal that closes it off and places it out of view.
The Delta is 200 miles long and flat as far as the eye can see. The markers commemorating Till’s story take up only a small portion of that landscape, one that I can never fail to find beauty in no matter what happened there, past or present. At sunset in the Delta it seems as if the sky consumes the land and gives texture to the fields below it. Whatever it is, the glow of the Delta at dusk always casts a spell over me, a soothing incantation that beckons each time I return. The Delta’s spell has a way of shaping the way stories are told as well as our ways of seeing those stories. It’s no wonder there are so many ways of looking at and thinking about the story of Emmett Till.
In the Mississippi Delta, the features of the land have become literary assets. From the unbroken flatness of its relief, to the endlessly rehearsed depth of its topsoil (40 feet), to the enchantment of its rivers (Faulkner’s “thick, slow, black, unsunned streams”), the ecology of the Delta has been transformed into so many literary tropes, so many mechanisms for evoking what you refer to as the “spell” of the Delta.
Emmett Till has not escaped this spell. Consider Ben Roy’s Service Station in Money, Mississippi, a long-shuttered Gulf station that sits precisely 67 feet south of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, the site where Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Abandoned since the 1980s, Bryant’s Grocery sits in ruins, its roof collapsed and the remnants of its walls supported by vines.
By contrast, Ben Roy’s has been restored. Although the same family owns both buildings, they won a $206,000 Civil Rights Historical Sites grant for Ben Roy’s by arguing that the covered portico on the gas station had become a default lecture site from which tourists could gaze at Bryant’s Grocery and hear Till’s story told.
The results are beautiful. The original gas pumps have been re-installed, the living quarters in the back have been well appointed, and Ben Roy’s now stands as a charming, nostalgic period piece, a vision of day-to-day life at midcentury. But it is a vision unmarked by race. The grant application stressed that the porch of Ben Roy’s was a place where whites and blacks alike gathered to “shed their work-week blues and enjoy the Jukebox at Ben Roy’s.” There is no reference to Emmett Till, civil rights, or the building 67 feet north.
One of the great ironies of Till commemoration is that civil rights dollars have flowed to Ben Roy’s and not to Bryant’s. While the ruins of Bryant’s Grocery stand as a testament to racial violence, the beautifully restored Ben Roy’s counters that violence with a profoundly different vision; it was restored as a testament to the charms of interracial fraternity that supposedly characterized midcentury Delta life.
Nostalgia, charm, and spell are not innocent. Although they may appear as literary conceits or the ineluctable byproduct of the Delta landscape, in the case of Ben Roy’s they were also a mechanism for channeling civil rights dollars into a rose-colored vision of racial history.
Both literature and history demand a moral center, as well as accuracy and emotion. For more than 60 years, the people of the Mississippi Delta have been confronting the legacy of an immoral act of violence and injustice, and in the process have tried to give a horrific story lasting meaning. In trying to provide a moral center to Till’s story, in some ways we have lost the impact of its brutal reality. That is the danger of nostalgia. It holds the power to muffle hard truths.
When I taught Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle to my seminar on civil rights and literature at Millsaps College, the issue that came up in almost every discussion was the contrast between Nordan’s Delta of magical realism and the real place, as well as real story of Emmett Till. When the Till-like character of Bobo’s body is found in a river by two boys (Emmett Till was nicknamed Bobo because of his convivial personality), it sings to them the words “Don’t look, don’t look at me.” The day we discussed that passage one of my students took an iPad and pulled up the famous image from Jet magazine of Till’s mangled face. There was a collective wince at the seminar table as we looked into the face of what it was Nordan’s characters found. Then there was silence. No one had any words to describe what they had just seen. At that moment, I realized why Nordan had no words to describe Bobo’s face and just wrote those words “Don’t look.”
When you see the face of Emmett Till in his casket it haunts you as well as changes your way of seeing. In teaching Wolf Whistle I found I had to tell the real story of Emmett Till alongside the fictionalized version. There was no way to separate them. The two stories are collectively intertwined, which you feel as a reader through the anger that underlies Nordan’s narrative even though there is no horrific imagery. But when my students saw that image, it had a profound impact on how they read the text. They made the choice to not turn their eyes from reality while immersed in a fictional world.
With the story of Emmett Till, Mississippi has been saying “don’t look.” Whoever destroyed that marker was also saying “don’t look” or “look at something else,” like the restored Ben Roy’s Service station. But the porch at Ben Roy’s is so pristine that it depicts a Delta that never was, one free of heat and dust and the backbreaking toil of working in cotton fields from sun up to sun down. The old sharecropping system worked with ruthless machine-like efficiency, propelled by a cheap labor force of African Americans. It’s easy to forget that, now that large computerized and air-conditioned farm machines perform the work once done by field laborers.
But we can’t and must not forget the story of Emmett Till or the realities of the history of the Mississippi Delta.
Yet, like you worried, I fear in some ways we are forgetting the power of these stories as we try to package history and memory into commerce. Eudora Welty believed that whatever was significant and tragic in a story would live on “regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads and other vagrancies.” Let’s hope that is true with the story of Emmett Till.
Central to both the meaning of the Mississippi Delta and the commemoration of Emmett Till is the inescapable fact of poverty. Commonly referred to as the “American third world,” the poverty of the Delta is both severe and conspicuous. It is also black. The small pockets of white wealth are a striking reminder that the Delta was built on a plantation economy. No wonder Richard Rubin calls the Delta the New Old South.
The experience of poverty deeply informed the development of the Delta’s own native art form, the blues. These are songs, Richard Wright teaches us, “molded out of rigorous and inhuman conditions.” The same impoverished conditions that once gave us the blues now inform the Delta’s most recent artistic form: the commemoration of Till’s murder.
The bullet-riddled sign sits on the outskirts of Glendora, Mississippi. The impoverishment of Glendora is astounding, even by Delta standards. The Boston nonprofit Partners in Development, committed to helping the “poorest of the poor,” focuses on Haiti, Guatemala, and Glendora, Mississippi. Alongside its poverty, Glendora is also the site of the first Emmett Till museum and the greatest density of Till memorials anywhere in the world. I have come to believe that these two facts are related. In a way that is true nowhere else in Mississippi, poverty and memory have become virtually indistinguishable in Glendora.
The lynchpin of the entire arrangement is a 501(c)3 called the Glendora Economic and Community Development Inc., or GEDCO. The nonprofit has assumed all town business. It pays city workers, runs the only grocery store within miles, owns 24 Section-8 apartments on Gipson Street, and operates the first Emmett Till Museum to open in the Mississippi Delta: the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center.
Through the mediation of GEDCO, poverty and commemoration have become mutually reinforcing. Because it is a nonprofit, GEDCO considers museum employees as part-time volunteers. The museum itself survives, not on admission fees, but on the $100,000 per year of federal HUD money generated by the Section-8 housing. Thus it is that impoverishment of the townspeople is the condition of commemoration. The museum’s only shot at breaking even is the HUD money that flows from the federal government, through the impoverished townspeople, through GEDCO, to the museum, which, in turn, underpays its employees and keeps the cycle going.
Returning to Richard Wright once more, in the Delta memory is often, like the blues, born of the “inhuman conditions” of poverty.
Dave Tell is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. He is currently a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, writing a book on the commemoration of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. He is the director of the Emmett Till Memory Project, an effort to provide an electronic commemorative infrastructure for the sites of Till’s murder. In addition to Till memory, he has published on the history of public confession, the cultural meanings of Kansas, the place of grain elevators in the history of ideas, and the history of rhetoric. His Confessional Crises and Cultural Politics in Twentieth Century America won the National Communication Association’s 2013 Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award.
W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past and The House at the End of the Road: The Story of Three Generations of an Interracial Family in the American South. His essays and criticism have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The American Scholar, NPR, WIRED, and the New Yorker. A 2007 Guggenheim fellow, he is currently the Eudora Welty Visiting Scholar in Southern Studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.