MONEY, MISS. — Two vans, escorted by local sheriff’s deputies, traveled deep into the Mississippi Delta, a swath of poor agricultural towns separated by endless stretches of corn and cotton. It was early afternoon when they arrived at the dilapidated grocery store.
“Is this it?” one of the travelers asked.
The building was barely standing, covered in thick weeds and ivy: Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, once the centerpiece of a bustling town of 400. In 1955, it was the site of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s fatal crime — whistling at a white woman.
Today, Bryant’s Grocery is derelict and forgotten, much like the town of Money. Although Till’s lynching is considered a pivotal spark of the civil rights movement, there’s little here to recall those events other than a modest historic marker erected outside Bryant’s four years ago.
Some say the grocery store should be turned into a museum, like many other places critical to the civil rights movement, or at least prevented from falling down.
“They should have preserved all of it,” said Eddie Carthan, a distant relative of Till’s mother and the former mayor of Tchula, which in the 1970s became one of the first Delta plantation towns to elect a black mayor.
Some of the region’s black elder statesmen aren’t convinced it matters much, though. The slow deterioration of Money is symptomatic of the region’s badly ailing economy. Once propped up by agriculture, towns in this section of northern Mississippi are now marked by blocks of boarded-up buildings, deeply impoverished people and stray dogs. A civil rights museum in Money wouldn’t change that, they say.
“This is one of the poorest areas in the United States of America,” said Johnny B. Thomas, mayor of Glendora, a nearby village. “What you see here in Money is the same thing you’ll see in almost any other place . . . in this region.”
Last weekend, on the 60th anniversary of Till’s death, a hodge-podge of distant relatives decided to pay their respects in Money, adding a visit to the moldering town to the family’s annual vigil at the boy’s gravesite in Chicago.
The visit comes at a time when the nation is wrestling with how to handle public symbols from that time and from other dark moments in the nation’s past. In recent months, several colleges have taken steps toward removing statues of Confederate generals. Following the lead of lawmakers in South Carolina, Mississippi officials are considering whether to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag.
Till’s relatives came from as close as Jackson, Miss., and as far away as Oakland, Calif. Among the oldest was Charles Kelly, 66, a second-cousin who said he had played with Till just days before he died. Among the youngest was an 11-year-old boy, whose family still lives in Mississippi, named Emmett Louis Till Marshall.
Deborah Watts, a distant relative of Till’s who co-founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, came from Minneapolis. She was visiting this part of Mississippi for the first time. Her daughter Teri, a public relations professional, helped coordinate the weekend, which included visits to other sites relevant to Till’s death.
First, they viewed a documentary about the lynching, one of the most recent in U.S. history. Then, they gathered at a local museum for a luncheon. Then, they marched through the black neighborhoods of Jackson, in a parade in Till’s honor. And then, they departed in vans on what one local official dubbed the “Till trail of terrors tour”: Bryant Grocery, the shed where he was killed, the river where his body was found and the courtroom where his alleged killers were declared not guilty.
“At the time of these events in 1955, the Mississippi Delta was a place where racial attitudes now considered abhorrent were the norm for a significant segment of society,” FBI investigators wrote in a 2006 report on Till’s death. “ ‘Jim Crow’ laws were a framework through which the races interacted; and ‘Negro Justice,’ an unwritten, de facto, separate legal system, served as the foundation for jurisprudence between blacks and whites.”
States across the South were locked in a bitter battle over voting rights and school desegregation. White Southerners, bombarded with calls for desegregation, felt their way of life was threatened. Poor whites, including shopkeepers who served even poorer black communities, believed racial equality would come at their expense.
In Mississippi, the unrest turned deadly. In May 1955, George W. Lee, a black minister who was among the first black residents in the state to register to vote, was shot and killed. In August, Lamar Smith, a black voting rights activist and World War II veteran, was shot and killed as he registered black voters outside a Mississippi courthouse. No one was charged in either killing.
Two weeks later, Till arrived in Mississippi from Chicago for a two-week visit with his mother’s family. After a few days, he went to Bryant’s Grocery to buy bubblegum and allegedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, the store’s owner.
According to their testimony in court, Carolyn Bryant told her husband what had happened the next day. The grocer was outraged. The following evening, he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till at gunpoint. The boy’s naked and mutilated body was pulled from the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River three days later.
Today, the grocery is abandoned. The funeral home where Till’s body was brought is a decaying shell. And Glendora, where Bryant and Milam allegedly acquired the metal cotton gin fan that was tied to the boy’s neck before his body was tossed into the river, is home to a few hundred people — most living in poverty.
One of the few spots that has been preserved is the courthouse in Sumner, the county seat, where Bryant and Milam were tried and acquitted. Indeed, their courtroom was recently restored to look as it did during the trial.
State Sen. David Jordan (D), who has represented these rural counties since 1993, joined the tour in Sumner. He glanced around the old-fashioned room and recalled attending the proceedings as a teenager. The most shocking thing about it, Jordan said, was seeing white reporters from out of town frequenting black businesses.
“It was the first time I had ever seen racial integration,” said Jordan, who is black and 81. “There were all of these white people staying in the black hotel. I couldn’t believe it.”
Despite that spectacle, Jordan said few locals believed Bryant and Milam would be convicted. The men claimed they had released Till after kidnapping him.
The pair were tried by a jury of 12 white men, each of whom were visited by the local Citizens’ Council, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, to make sure they would vote “the right way,” according to the FBI’s probe of Till’s death.
In 2005, the FBI opened a federal investigation into Till’s death, but no new charges were filed. Bryant and Milam are dead, and, while several other local men are also believed to have been involved in the killing, no one has served time for Till’s slaying.
As the sun set in a pink-and-yellow country sky, the tour group made its way toward one of the last stops of the day: Shurden Plantation in Drew, Miss. Here, in a dimly lit shed, historians believe Till was tortured and beaten for at least three hours before a bullet was put through his head.
“I haven’t been back in these counties in decades, not since the late ’60s,” said Kelly, who wore a T-shirt covered in photos of Till. “To come back, it’s hard. It brings back a lot of old memories that I had forgotten about what this did to our family.”
The group spent close to half an hour at the shed, looking at the walls, discolored by time, and spots on the ground where chunks of dirt were missing. FBI investigators had dug it up when the investigation was reopened, searching for signs of Till’s DNA.
“I’m so sorry, Emmett. I’m so sorry,” Deborah Watts whispered, her hands held together near her chest as tears spilled from beneath her sunglasses. “I’m so sorry.”
“He knows you are,” Teri Watts said, wrapping her arm around her mother’s shoulder.
They stood in the shed for several minutes longer, eyes focused on the wooden rafters where Till’s body had once hanged on cruel display.
“He knows we are,” the daughter said.