The Civil Rights Movement drew many young people into a maelstrom of meetings, marches, imprisonment, and in some cases, death. Some were willing, active participants who took action for a cause they believed in. Others were unsuspecting victims of an oppressive, racist culture that was determined to perpetuate a white supremacist society.
In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till had just finished the seventh grade in Chicago. He had convinced his mother, Mamie, to forgo a planned family vacation and allow him to visit his great-uncle, Moses Wright, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Mamie knew Emmett to be a responsible child, but also high spirited and at times, a prankster. Before he left, Mamie counseled Emmett to be polite and not provoke the white people. She gave him a ring that had belonged to his deceased father, Louis Till.
Tallahatchie County in 1955 was economically and cultural depressed area of northern Mississippi. Most of the population had only a grade school education. Two-thirds were African American, working as sharecroppers and subjugated by whites in every way. The 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, which outlawed segregation in public schools, was viewed as a death knell by most whites in the Deep South and Mississippi in particular. Many feared mixing of the races would encourage African Americans to step out of “their place” and threaten the social order. One state newspaper boldly declared, “Mississippi cannot and will not try to abide by such a decision.”
Emmett Till arrived at his great-uncle Moses farm house on August 21, 1955. He spent most of his days working in the cotton fields and his evenings with his cousins. He wasn’t conditioned, as they were, to address white people as “sir’ or “ma’am.” He boasted about his white friends in Chicago and a photo of a white girl he kept in his wallet whom he called his girlfriend. On the evening of August 24, Till and some cousins traveled to Money, a small junction near his great-uncle’s house. They gathered at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market owned and operated by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Roy was away on business, and 21-year-old Carolyn was minding the store. What happened next has been in dispute ever since.
Emmett Till either began to brag about his white girlfriend or someone dared him to go into the store and ask Carolyn Bryant for date. As he entered the store, his cousins looked in from the window. Some witnesses said he walked up to Carolyn, said something and touched or held her hand or arm. Others say he didn’t. Till either calmly left the store or was dragged out by one of his cousins. On the way to the truck, he allegedly yelled “Bye, baby” to Carolyn and either whistled loudly at her or, as his mother later explained he often did, whistled as he tried to overcome his stutter. In any event, the teenagers sped off before Carolyn could get her gun, which she kept under the seat of her car.
Carolyn chose not to tell Roy of the encounter with Till after he returned home, but he found out through local gossip and became enraged. In the early morning hours of August 28, Bryant and his half-brother John Milam stormed into Moses Wight’s house, pulled Till out of bed, and dragged him to an awaiting pickup truck. Wright and his wife fruitlessly pleaded with the men as they drove off into the night.
Three days later, Emmet Till’s body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, mutilated beyond recognition. Moses Wright only knew it was his nephew because of the ring he was wearing. Authorities wanted to quickly bury the body, but his mother, Mamie insisted it be sent back to Chicago. After seeing her son’s remains, she decided to have an open-casket funeral so the world could see what had happened. Thousands of mourners filed passed the casket and several African American publications printed graphic photos of Till’s body.
By the time of the trial, Emmett Till’s murder had become a source of outrage throughout the country and in Tallahatchie County. Roy Bryant and John Milam were charged with kidnapping and murder. Among the many witnesses called during the five-day trial was Moses Wright who bravely testified that Bryant and Milan kidnapped Till. It took the all-white, all-male jury only an hour to acquit Bryant and Milam.
After the verdict, protest rallies took place in major U.S. cities and even press in Europe covered the trial and after events. The Bryant’s store eventually went out of business, as 90 percent of their clientele was African American. Desperate for money, Bryant and Milam agreed to an interview by LOOK magazine where they gave detailed confessions about killing Till, secure from further prosecution because of double jeopardy.
Emmett Till’s murder brought light to the brutality of Jim Crow segregation in the South and galvanized an emerging civil rights movement. Two years after Emmett Till’s murder, nine brave African American high school students would break segregation tradition and enter a white-only high school.
Three years after that, a very brave seven-year-old African American girl would enroll in an all-white grade school and four African American college students would integrate lunch counters and start integration movement that would sweep the country. In 1963, two more events in Birmingham, Alabama—a police attack on thousands of children and the bombing of an African American church, killing four young girls—would stir the conscience of a nation to finally enact civil rights legislation into law.
LITTLE ROCK 9 – 1957
The landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education set in motion the racial integration of the nation’s schools. Resistance was wide spread across the country and in 1955 the Court issued a second opinion (sometimes known as “Brown II”) ordering school districts to integrate “with all deliberate speed.” In response to the Brown decisions and pressure from the NAACP, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board adopted a plan for gradual integration, beginning with Little Rock Central High School.
In the summer of 1957, Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, recruited nine high school students who she believed possessed the strength and determination to face the resistance to integration. They were Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls. In the months prior to the start of the school year, the students participated in intensive counseling sessions on what to expect and how to respond.
Two days before school opened, on September 2, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to bar African American students from entry to the state’s schools, stating it was “for their own protection.” The next day, federal court judge Richard Davies issued a counter-ruling that desegregation would proceed.
As the nine African American students attempted to enter the school on September 4, a crowd of angry white students and adults, and the National Guard, were there to meet them. As the students walked toward the front door, the white protesters drew closer, screaming racial epithets and spitting on them. Ultimately the Guard prevented the students from entering the school.
In the days that followed, the Little Rock school board condemned the governor’s National Guard deployment and President Dwight Eisenhower tried to persuade Governor Faubus not to defy the Court’s ruling. On September 20, Judge Davies ordered the National Guard removed from the school and the Little Rock Police Department took over to maintain order. Three days later, the police attempted to escort the students to school but were met by an angry mob of 1,000 white protesters. Little Rock mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, asked President Eisenhower to send federal troops to enforce integration and on September 24, President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and federalized the entire 10,000 member of the Arkansas National Guard, taking authority away from Governor Faubus.
The next day, the Army troops escorted the students to their first day of class.
Legal challenges and protests to integration continued and the 101st Airborne Division stayed at the school the entire year. The nine African American students faced verbal and physical abuse. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown in her face and Gloria Ray was thrown down a flight of stairs. In May, 1958, senior Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. The next year, Little Rock Central High School was closed after local citizens rejected by a 3-1 margin a petition to officially integrate the school. The school reopened in 1959 and the remaining Little Rock Nine students went on to graduate and have distinguished careers in government, the military, and the media. In 1999, President Bill Clinton recognized the nine for their significant role in civil rights history, awarding each the Congressional Gold Medal and in 2009, all nine were invited to President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
THE GREENSBORO FOUR, 1960
Despite the Brown v. Board of Education decision, desegregation in the South came slowly and painfully and young African Americans were keenly aware of the hypocrisy. In 1960, four African American college students–Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil–were attending the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. They had become close friends, spending evenings discussing current events and their place as African Americans in a “separate but equal” society. They had been influenced by the non-violent protest techniques of India’s Mohandas Gandhi as well as the early Freedom Rides in the Deep South, organized by the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). They all four had been shaken by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.
Though all four students recognized that some strides had been made in desegregating the South, integration was not universal. Most businesses were privately owned and thus not subject to federal laws that banned segregation. When one of the students had been denied service at a lunch counter, all four of them carefully devised a plan to take action and encourage change.
Wearing their best clothes, all four students walked into the F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. After purchasing some merchandise, they sat at the whites-only lunch counter and requested service which they were denied. They politely requested service and again were denied, this time by the store’s manager who told them to leave. Again, they refused. By this time, the police had arrived as did the media. Unable to take any action because there was no provocation, the police could not make an arrest. Customers in the store were dumbfounded at the situation, but did nothing. The four students stayed at the counter, unserved, until the store closed. They would be back.
By February 5, hundreds of students had joined the sit-in at Woolworth’s paralyzing the lunch counter business. Intense media coverage on television and newspapers showed many of the protesters stoically facing abuse and threats by white customers. The sit-ins sparked a nationwide movement on college campuses and cities bringing attention to the struggle for civil rights. By the end of 1960, many restaurants, lunch counters, and privately-owned businesses had desegregated their facilities without any court action or legislation. The sit-ins proved to be one of the most effective protests of the Civil Rights Movement.
Clancy's comment: Good for them!