THE BUILDING STILL STANDS at the intersection of Weber Street and Highway 49W in Ruleville, Miss. The gas pumps are gone, and so is the red kerosene tank from which we pumped a quarter's worth of "coal oil" for wood stoves, barbecue pits and lamps. The old occupants are gone, too, along with any sign of how, 40 years ago this weekend, they damaged the psyche of every young African American male in the nation.

The current residents of what was once Michelle's Grocery are African American. That would not be so surprising, were it not for the tenants who once lived above the store. The Michelles treated African Americans with respect and fairness. Their children played with us. During the early 1950s we shared birthday parties and make-believe swims in shallow plastic pools in the store's backyard. All the while Mrs. Michelle cranked out homemade ice cream, popped popcorn and kept an eye out for bad guys who might suddenly come upon children of different colors innocently enjoying being children.

After old man Jack Michelle died, the store changed hands. To us, the children of that sleepy town north of Jackson, it was the closing of a safe port in a sea of bigotry, racism, apartheid, segregation and cotton. For nothing had prepared us for the characters who would somehow come to life in our midst.

The new owners were J. W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant. Milam had admitted that he and Roy had lynched Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who was accused of whistling at a white female. Only a few of us had ever seen Emmett Till. He was one of those kids who came from "up North" every summer to join us in the cotton fields. Not because they had to, or needed the money, or the grass sacks filled with government-issue cheese, powdered milk, meal and flour, but because they needed a break from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

Emmett stood out among the Chicago boys because he talked continuously, seemed mature for his age, wore a straw hat, had funny-looking, light-colored eyes and all the girls thought he was cute. Like other black boys who came from up North he could keep us spellbound with stories of white girlfriends, the forbidden fruit. After all, they were our masters because they were white, regardless of their ages. Even our parents and grandparents called white children mister and miss. It was custom. In our minds, the thought of referring to a white kid in Mississippi as a girlfriend or boyfriend could mark a black child or his family for retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan, or from anyone who was white and aware of the thought, comment or rumor.

Yet we were always intrigued by wallet-size photographs from Life or Look magazine that the Chicago boys carried in cheap plastic wallets. We believed they were real photos of girlfriends, and that up North you could have a white girlfriend and it was okay. We imagined racial bliss, and integrated movies where blacks didn't have to sit in the balcony. We imagined dancing to Little Anthony and the Imperials singing "Shimmy, Shimmy Coco Bop," and slow dragging to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles crooning "You Really Got a Hold On Me."

We believed that up North there was no color line. We believed that blacks only had to stay in their place in the South, in Mississippi. After all, we had our stories too. Our stories were of people who left the fields on Friday and disappeared without a trace by Monday morning. Somehow we knew that if they didn't show up in jail, they would surface in Chicago. We also knew they would return one day talking "proper," the men with "processed" hairdos, loud-colored suits and pointed-toed shoes. If they made it real big, they would be driving a Cadillac. Such was the mystique of the flight north; the myth of the black exodus to the promised land.

To us, Chicago boys like Emmett Till relished their ability to dazzle us with their lack of fear of white people. It never occurred to us at the time that they always made these boasts when there were no white folks around to challenge them. We could only marvel at what we imagined their lives must be like in a place where your seat on the bus was determined not by the color of your skin but by the availability of a vacant seat. To the children of the Mississippi Delta, Emmett Till was Marco Polo, who had gone to the New World and returned this August to let us know what to expect. But in August things would change forever, and this Marco Polo would never return alive, and no black boy would ever think of his world the same way again.

We had heard rumors of black men being beaten and even lynched for reasons most people would think absurd. Still, we were beguiled by stories of black boys with white girlfriends. Real or imagined, the notion of a white female speaking intimately to a black man or encouraging him to touch her was a fantasy. The more stories we heard from Chicago boys, the more we believed that maybe we were reading the signals wrong. Perhaps white females really did want to be with us intimately. Perhaps all girls were the same, regardless of color. Maybe if we acted a little less scared we too could have white girlfriends and earn bragging rights. Never mind the admonition always present in our minds, that in Mississippi such an offense was punishable by death.

We had no idea that four days later, on August 28, 1955, Emmett Till would come face to face with this horrible truth. It all began at a general store in Money, a one-horse town not far from the Tallahatchie River. This general store was frequented by bus loads of cotton choppers and pickers. We went there for lunch at noon time to buy pork 'n beans, sardines, cinnamon rolls and RC colas. Often we stopped there on the trip home from the fields in the evenings. It was a place of alcohol, tobacco, gossip, rumors and pathos.

On this particular weekend, rumors were afoot that Emmett Till had entered the store on a dare from some of his young friends and begun a conversation with Roy Bryant's wife, who was behind the counter. While his friends peeped in from the outside, Emmett talked freely with the woman. Though it was never proven, one account has it that he "wolf-whistled" and inadvertently touched her in a "nonsexual" way. At this point Emmett's friends became frightened and warned him that they should all run away.

As rumors of the incident spread, Emmett began to share his friends' concern. He talked of cutting short his stay and returning to Chicago. His aunt felt the incident would blow over if he kept quiet and out of sight. Sometime in the wee morning hours of the following Sunday, two white men went to the home of Emmett's aunt and uncle and took Emmett.

When Emmett's savagely beaten and decomposing body was found eight days later, he had been bound with barbed wire, shot in the head and thrown or rolled into the Tallahatchie River, weighed down by a 74-pound fan used to draw hot air out of a cotton gin.

Immediately, Milam and Bryant were suspects, at least in our minds. Reluctantly -- these were, of course, "upstanding" white citizens of our community -- they were arrested by local authorities. They admitted abducting and beating Emmett but said they did not kill him. Five white lawyers volunteered to represent the brothers, and an all-white jury acquitted them.

Later, in a paid interview with the novelist and journalist William Bradford Huie, Milam acknowledged the murder. "The killing was justified," he said in the Look article. "Well, what else could we do? He {Emmett} was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers -- in their place. I know how to work them. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.

"As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger even gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired of living. I'm likely to kill him. . \. \. I stood there and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. Chicago boy,' I said, I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I'm going to make an example out of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.' "

By the time this article appeared in 1956, I was 8 years old. I was well aware of how J. W. Milam and his folks stood. In their minds they lived in a society in which blacks were believed to be genetically inferior to whites. Theirs was a climate widely accepted by most segments of the white community, and now even sanctioned by law, or so it seemed to us. The court verdict was not what made this so evident at the time. It was the presence of the local police, state police, sheriffs, deputies and constables who joined the Milams' weekend beer crowd on Saturdays at the store some 200 yards from our front door. By now the corner of Weber Street and 49W had become a gathering place for bigots. Often when word reached the store of an escape from the State Penitentiary at Parchman, the penal farm a few miles to the north, an instant posse was formed. Without warning, dozens of armed, intoxicated white men would set out, often stopping home long enough to pick up their bloodhounds. Many times, when the hunt was over, they returned to the store in a caravan. They often signaled their arrival and success by firing (a la Beirut) into the air. If the death of a peer brings with it a sudden sense of mortality, especially to a child, then the presence of the killers in our midst as neighbors and free men not only confirmed the obvious, but bordered on the absurd. Only the children really knew the impact of the arrival of this family on the deepest of levels, in those places which once changed remain forever changed.

Soon the parties at the store became a little rowdier, and were not confined to weekends. Soon the Shoemakers, a white family who lived on county property adjacent to our small plot of land, forbid their daughter Angie to play with me, or any of the black kids in the neighborhood. She could no longer come over to our house to practice her lessons on our piano, even though her family did not own one. Angie's father, who drove a bulldozer for the county road department, came home one afternoon and proceeded to bulldoze a makeshift playhouse he had constructed for us earlier. Her mother later explained that the family had been warned that Angie and I should no longer be allowed to play together.

The psychological impact served only to further confuse and lower our self-esteem and deepen the age-old notion of white supremacy. It already seemed odd to us that when we were in the fields chopping and picking cotton, white children were home playing or involved in some organized community activity to which we had no access. To us, if black and white children could no longer play together, not because of something we had done but because of some inherent dark stain on our soul only visible to whites, then just maybe to be white was better.

It was now obvious that to survive the physical threat of white supremacy, one had to consciously avoid certain types of environments and people. We knew -- though there were no words in our young vocabularies to express the thought -- that the more sinister threat was the possibility that we would come to believe that we, as African Americans, were inferior to whites simply because of our color.

In the days that followed, my life and that of my friends changed, and so did our community. We mapped out routes to town which took us away from and around the store. We were warned not to act like we really knew who the brothers were, or what they had been accused of. We were warned not to whistle in public. We were warned not to look at white women at all, and to speak with them only when spoken to and when absolutely necessary. We were warned not to look white men in the eye. We were told there would be no more birthday parties in the backyard of Michelle's Grocery. We were told to keep our oatmeal cookies to ourselves. By then it didn't matter. For us the age of innocence was already dead. John Milton Wesley, a poet and author, is director of partnership development and marketing for the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information in Rockville.