Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

Caught in the cross-fire: victims of segregation in the USA

“I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.” Dr. Martin Luther King, September 1962.

Most people will have heard of the Civil Rights Movement which was a focus for the campaign for equality for Black Americans in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. And, of course, most will also have heard of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, and also Malcolm X or Stokeley Carmichael, who supported a more confrontational approach to securing rights and equality. But few people remember the likes of Elizabeth Eckford and Medgar Evers or, indeed, Emmett Till. This is a brief look at what happened to Emmett Till and some of those lesser-known people who were caught up in the most famous campaign for civil rights in that ‘land of the brave and the free’, the United States of America.

The Death of Emmett Till

In 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years old, a boy from Chicago who was visiting family down in Money, Mississippi, one of the most violent and racist of the southern states at that time, where segregation was still strictly enforced. Emmett went in to a shop with his cousin and some other friends and, for a dare, either said ‘Bye, babe!’ or wolf whistled at, Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who owned the shop. Not really appreciating the dangers of doing such a thing, he ran off with his friends. Carolyn Bryant told various people what had happened and her husband, who was away the time, heard about it a few days later. John Bryant, her husband, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the house of Emmett’s uncle, where the boy was staying. They demanded to see Emmett, eventually driving him away in their truck. He was never seen again.

In the days following his disappearance and before his body was found, Medgar Evers, a key figure in the NAACP, was one of the people who helped to coordinate the search. Evers would be another of those who would suffer at the hands of the racists, being murdered in June 1963 for his involvement in the civil rights movement.

After a long search, Emmett Till’s body was eventually fished out of the famous Tallahatchie River in late August 1955. He had been so horribly beaten that his left eye and ear were missing, as were nearly all of his teeth. There was a hole in the side of his head where he seemed to have been shot and his body had also been wrapped in barbed wire and tied to the fan of a cotton gin so that it was weighed down and sank into the swamp. Bryant and Milam actually admitted to kidnapping the boy but denied any involvement in his death, saying they simply wanted to scare Emmett and teach him a lesson.

Bryant and Milam, were charged with Emmett Till’s murder but they were acquitted within 67 minutes by an all-white jury despite overwhelming evidence against them.  The prosecution had only two witnesses to support their case, Emmett’s uncle and his cousin, who had seen Bryant and Milam take the boy away. However, a further witness came forward, a local man by the name of Willie Louis, who had Emmett being beaten.  Louis bravely took the stand to identify the two men as the murderers of Emmett Till but his testimony was ignored by the jury and Bryant and Milam went free. A few months later, having been assured that because of the law of ‘double jeopardy’ (a US law which says you cannot be tried for the same crime twice), they admitted to the murder but went free. Willie Louis, by contrast, had to be smuggled out of his home in Mississippi. He was forced to move to Chicago where he had to live under police protection and changed his name to Willie Reed. He stayed silent about his role in the trial for the next thirty years until he told his wife about what had happened. Reed was eventually introduced to Emmett Till’s mother and he was interviewed on TV in a documentary about the murder. Willie Reed died in 2013, still haunted by the screams he heard as Emmett Till was murdered by two men who lost barely a day of freedom for their horrific crime.

Emmett Till’s murder, and the events that surrounded the search and the trial, caused a massive outpouring of anger and horror in the USA and across the world. Bob Dylan was just one person who was aware of the murder, leading him to write the song ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ which would eventually appear on the ‘Broadside Ballads, Vol. 6’ album of 1972. The injustice was blatant, and this reflected especially badly on the USA at a time when it claimed to be leading the fight against Communism in the Cold War. As former colonies were looking to emerge from the control of the European nations, for example, why should they look to the USA and the West for leadership and protection? What was so great about a country which could allow such clear racism and hatred to poison relationships in its own land? How could such overwhelming evidence be ignored and a decision to acquit be reached so casually? How could an all-white jury be allowed to deliver a verdict in such a case when the population was so mixed? These questions also cut deep into the consciousness of American society, causing many to reflect on what was happening in the most powerful country on earth.

Bryant and Milam had set out to ‘teach the boy a lesson’, when they went after Emmett Till; in the end they taught the world a lesson about the hatred that raged in the southern states, and gave a huge impetus to the Civil Rights Movement. But what a tragedy it was that Emmett Till should have to be remembered by having a street named after him in Chicago, all because of whistling at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Emmett Till – photo showing him as he was before the attack and also with the horrific injuries he suffered: here)

Just in case you are not sure about where the ‘Southern States’ are, here is a map. They are the states which formed the Confederacy in the American Civil War (1861-65). They were the states which threatened to leave the USA if slavery were abolished. They wore the grey uniforms, as against the soldiers of the Union, or the North, who wore blue in all the films. The Southern States, the Confederates, lost the war and had to accept the end of slavery but retained a deep resentment against the North, a hatred that they transferred into persecution of the freed slaves who stayed in those states.

 

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(Author: Nick Roux; Source: Map-USA-South01.svg)

The Southern States of the USA are those in the south-east of the country: Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. Although Florida, Oklahoma and Texas are sometimes considered southern states today, they did not experience segregation at anything like the same level as the other states mentioned.

 

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Another important incident from 1955 also happened in the ‘Deep South’, this time in Montgomery, Alabama. The ‘Deep South’, also called ‘the Cotton States’, refers to the most racist and hard-line of the southern states, the likes of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. A quiet, dignified woman called Rosa Parks (1913-2005) was to see her life transformed as she ended up in prison and on the front pages of the newspapers, because of events on 1st December 1955. Rosa Parks’ story is far better known than that of Emmett Till but it is still worth covering for its importance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement.

Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP in Montgomery and regularly travelled on the buses. The NAACP was the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’, which had been formed in New York City in 1909 by a group of citizens, both black and white, who wanted to see social justice for all Black Americans. It was the largest such organisation in the USA, and had a high profile and many members across the country. Travelling home from work on the evening of 1st December, Rosa Parks got onto a bus and sat in the designated ‘Coloreds only’ section. The front of the bus was for ‘Whites only’ but, on this journey, it filled up, leaving some white people standing. The driver moved the ‘Coloreds only’ sign back a row, forcing four people to move. Rosa Parks was one of these and she refused to move, believing she should not have to. The driver called the police and Rosa Parks was arrested and eventually fined for her actions. It is sometimes said that Rosa was thinking of Emmett Till when she decided to refuse to move.

A one-day protest was organised where Black Americans in the area refused to ‘ride’ the buses. The success of this protest led to plans for a long-term boycott, partly under the guidance of the new minister at one of the local Baptist churches, a man called Martin Luther King Jr. The famous ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’ was to have huge significance as an example of ‘direct action’ or peaceful protest in the manner used by ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi in India. So it was that the boycott started – and went on for a year before achieving success when segregation on the buses was ended in Alabama.

Rosa Parks was not the first person to protest against the system of segregation on the buses of the south but her example was the one that triggered the key response. There is no doubt that this was due in large part to the leadership of Martin Luther King but success was achieved with the support of thousands of unknown people who endured so much pain and inconvenience during the bus boycott. Together they won and broke just one aspect of the system of segregation. Something fundamental changed with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There was a powerful sense of hope, a belief that things could change and that victory could be won with courage, patience and united action.

Rosa Parks came to symbolise the hopes of many people across the USA. She received many awards in her lifetime with the most important one being the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ which she received from President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Rosa Parks died in 2005, at the age of 92.

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Rosa Parks rides the bus in Montgomery following the end of segregation. (Author: United Press photographer; Source: Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks receiving the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ from Bill Clinton. (Author: unknown; Source: here)

 

Medgar Evers

A third important but lesser known figure from the campaign for civil rights is Medgar Evers (1925-1963). Evers was born in the Deep South, in the state of Mississippi, probably the most violently racist of all the states. He fought in World War II as a G.I. alongside white soldiers, an experience which made him aware of the full significance of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws of segregation and racism. These laws were passed by states in the ‘Deep South’ and legalised discrimination against Black Americans in things like education, employment and the legal system. ‘Jim Crow’ was a derogatory term for Black Americans in this region, something picked up in the Disney film ‘Dumbo’ in case you’re interested. On his return from the war, Medgar Evers lived once again in Mississippi, gaining his legal qualifications and then going to work for the NAACP. He was involved in various important events including the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till (for which he worked undercover in a cotton field as a sharecropper) and in trying to help James Meredith become the first Black American to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Meredith would later be shot by a sniper while making a solo ‘March against Fear’ from Tennessee to Mississippi in 1966. He survived and later continued the march. Rather interestingly, James Meredith would later become anti-civil rights, even working against the decision to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday – but that is a story for another time.

Anyway, Evers continued the campaign for the full integration of education in Mississippi and the Southern States, provoking anger from white supremacists and the Ku-Klux-Klan. He believed in peaceful protest, proclaiming ‘Violence is not the way’. He received numerous death threats to try to stop his activities but continued his work. Eventually, on 12th July 1963, Evers was shot by a member of the KKK. He was 38 when he died. A man called Byron de la Beckwith was tried before two all white juries, both of which returned hung decisions so that he could not be convicted. Thirty years later, following revelations made to a prison guard in which he boasted of killing Evers, de la Beckwith was tried again and sentenced to life imprisonment. The wheels of justice sometimes turn very slowly, especially in the South.

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Medgar Evers (1925-63) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine

One final figure worth knowing a little bit about is Elizabeth Eckford (b. 1941), who became famous in 1957 when a group of nine Black American students wanted to enter Little Rock High School in Arkansas. They were trying to exercise their right to attend any school in the USA but they were all prevented from attending and were on the receiving end of quite vicious abuse from white students, police and ordinary people when they walked to the school that day. Protest marches against them were organised so that they were followed by large crowds. This led to the famous photograph (below) of Elizabeth, who was 16 at the time, and the crowd of local people who harassed her as she made her way to school.

Little Rock 9

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It is interesting to note that Hazel Massery, the girl in the centre of the picture shouting angrily, later saw the photo and was horrified by it. She was struck by the way in which her own hatred contrasted with the sadness and fear on Elizabeth’s face. Many years later she made contact with Elizabeth to apologise and the two women campaigned to strengthen civil rights and improve relations between their communities.

The incident at Little Rock became a national issue. President Eisenhower decided to send in the National Guard, forcing the State authorities to comply with the law by allowing black students to attend the school. But the soldiers had to provide some serious, on-going, protection both inside and outside the school, ensuring their education could go ahead free from abuse, intimidation and violence. This decision was made partly to enforce one of the most significant decisions of the Supreme Court. In 1952, in the case of ‘Brown v Topeka Board of Education, Kansas’, the Supreme Court had ruled that a Black American girl called Linda Brown was allowed to attend her local school, which was designated as a ‘Whites only’ school, rather than having to travel across Topeka to a designated ‘Coloreds only’ school.

The ‘Brown v Topeka’ case was very important as it overturned a Supreme Court decision from 1895 where, in the case known as ‘Plessey v. Ferguson’, the judges had said that it was legal to have segregation in education; schools could be for ‘Whites only’ or ‘Coloreds only’, allowing a policy known as ‘Separate but equal’. This meant that, as long as children from different racial backgrounds had a school to go to, it did not matter what they were like, how they were resourced, how they were funded, how qualified the teachers were and how many students were in each class. Schools could (and did) accept or reject students based on their racial background and this was legal. It meant white schools were larger, newer, better equipped, better funded, had more qualified teachers and had more up to date resources than the schools for ‘Colored’ students, and that was also perfectly legal. Eisenhower’s decision was a huge step by the President, enforcing this decision and forcing the southern states to accept the law and comply.

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Segregation at water fountains was legal. (Author: Russell Lee; Source: here)

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Segregation existed at the cinema. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Segregation in US restaurants was widespread.  (Author: Ben Shahn; Source: here)

A Military Police Officer in Georgia, 1942. (Author: PFC Victor Tampone; Source:here)

Signs of segregation in the ‘Land of the Free’

 

Once again, the fact that all of this was happening while the USA claimed to be fighting the USSR over issues such as rights, opportunity, equality, freedom and justice, struck many people as, at best, odd, and at worst, hypocritical. It had echoes of the treatment of Jesse Owens after winning four gold medals for the US at the Berlin Olympics: “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler; but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either”.

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X might have been the most famous names but there were many other people, people with smaller but still important stories, who played their own part in the Civil Rights Movement. Ordinary people suffered, struggled, fought and, eventually, won the victory – and without them, the leaders of the movement would have been seriously weakened.

 

 

Find out more
DVD: ‘Mississippi Burning’ (Certificate 18 – 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1989) – an inaccurate but interesting re-telling of the FBIs involvement in solving the murders of the three ‘Freedom Riders’ in Mississippi. It is very good at presenting the attitudes, social values and relationships of the Deep South in the 1960s.
DVD: Dr. Martin Luther King – A Historical Perspective (Certificate – exempt – Delta Home Entertainment, 2005). An hour long documentary about MLK, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.
DVD: ‘Malcolm X’ (Certificate 15 – Warner Home Video, 1992) – powerful study of Malcolm X, the civil rights leader who took a more direct and aggressive approach to civil rights than Martin Luther King.
Songs. Music played a major role in giving shape, strength and inspiration to the Civil Rights Movement. The number of songs that could be listed is huge and the following are just a few that were considered important by many people: ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ by Bob Dylan, ‘Strange Fruit’ by Billie Holiday, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’ by Mavis Staples and ‘People Get Ready’ by The Impressions.
Books. The range of books that touch on segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in one way or another is huge. Biographies of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa parks and other figures abound and can be found in any good bookshop or on-line. A good introduction can be found in Chapter 12 of ‘The American Century’ by Harold Evans (Jonathan Cape, 1998), Some of the most well known books include, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett, ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, as well as works by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison – but there are many, many more to consider.

 

 

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