Wednesday, August 5, 2009
The sight of 14-year-old Emmett Till's brutalized body, shown 54 years ago openly to thousands of mourners in Chicago, pushed many sideliners directly into the modern civil rights movement. In observance of Till and five other civil rights martyrs, an Iowa civil rights author is blogging Who Killed Emmett Till? Stories of Six Civil Rights Martyrs of the Mississippi Delta.
Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 6 August 2009-- In the hot summer before the cold winter in which our nation entered the second world war to end all wars, two black males were born two weeks apart; one in Illinois and the other in the Mississippi Delta.
They would never meet. Both were killed in and near the small cotton ginning town of Drew in Sunflower County, heart of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago was kidnapped one quiet August night in the summer of 1955 while visiting Mississippi relatives in the small cotton hamlet of Money.
Accused of whistling at a white store-owner’s wife and making smart remarks, Till was forcibly taken to a plantation owner’s tool shed at the edge of nearby Drew where he was tortured, beaten and shot to death. His body was moved to another small cotton town, Glendora, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River.
Some 42 years later, Cleveland McDowell of Drew, a 56-year-old Mississippi attorney whose career was unquestionably defined by Till’s untimely murder, was found shot to death at home in Drew.
McDowell, the first black law student accepted into the James Eastland School of Law at the University of Mississippi, achieved numerous honors throughout his life. He was a bright Drew Junior High School leader the day Till was murdered and was so affected that he went on to study law.
All of his professional life, McDowell secretly tracked details of race-based murders, including the lynching of Till. He remained a friend of Emmett Till’s mother, updating her of information as it was gathered until he died in 1997. Mrs. Till lived until 2003.
Emmett Till’s murder sparked the upsurge of activism and resistance known as the modern civil rights movement, historians now say. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience followed by twelve weeks the September 24 acquittal of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who later publicly admitted killing Till.
Klopfer’s blog book covers four other civil rights martyrs from the Delta including Joe Pullen and Jo Etha Collier.
“Some of Drew’s black elders still talk about a story passed down by their parents and relatives focusing on a 1923 gunfight raging into the early morning hours of December 15 between Joe Pullen, a tenant farmer and WWI veteran, and plantation manager W.T. Saunders. The fight would also turn out to be a watershed event in U.S. history after Pullen shot and killed Saunders during an argument over money and then Pullen’s own life ended in a ditch at the edge of Drew when he was shot after an all-night gun battle.”
By 1965 concerted efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had achieved no success at all.
On May 25, 1971 Jo Etha Collier, an 18-year-old black girl, was shot dead in her hometown of Drew less than an hour after she graduated from desegregated Drew High School. She had been shot below the ear and was bleeding heavily; she died before reaching the hospital.
“School integration had gone smoothly in Drew even though a majority of white parents had taken their children out of Drew High School. Those who stayed were getting along well with their black classmates and there were no reported racial incidents during the school year.”
None of Mississippi’s thousands of murders were simply isolated events, including the slaying of Emmett Till. They simply fit into a pattern reflective of the region’s brutal culture formed even before statehood, says Klopfer who provides story after story of murder and cruelty leading up to the 1955 murder of Till and then McDowell in 1997.
For additional information on Klopfer’s book blogging project contact Susan Klopfer or visit www.emmett-till.com.
About Susan Klopfer:
Susan Klopfer holds a B.A. degree in communication from Hanover College and a Master’s Degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. She was an acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall where she authored Abort! Retry! Fail! The DOS Answer Book. Klopfer lived in the Mississippi Delta on the grounds of historical Parchman Penitentiary while researching and writing The Emmett Till Book and Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.