- Mississippi Haunting
Editor's Note: The following article originally appeared under Mr. Hendrickson's byline in the Washington Post on February 27, 2000
I am standing by the side of the road in front of a falling-down building that was once a grocery store in an all-but-deserted Mississippi place called Money, and I am trying hard—in this midday winter cold and gloom—to conjure the ghost of a little fat black kid from Chicago called "Bobo" Till. He is known to history as Emmett Till. He was 14 and never had a chance. Theydidn't just murder the cocky and supposedly fresh-mouthed Emmett Louis Bobo Till that Sunday morning in August 1955. They made him undress and caved in his face and shot him in the head with a .45 and barbwired his neck to a 75-pound cotton-gin fan. Then they dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.
His crime? He had reputedly wolf-whistled at a 21-year-old married white woman named Carolyn Bryant who was tending the counter of the grocery alone. He had supposedly called her "baby" and maybe popped his just-purchased two cents' worth of bubble gum in her direction and perhaps squeezed her hand and even asked her for a date. Maybe all of it was true, and maybe just shards of it were true. But something forbidden—or perceived to be forbidden—between a white woman and a black teenager in the rural Deep South of the 1950s seems clearly to have happened, and yet precisely what it was remains clouded in the historical mist. Still there is no arguing the historical consequences for the course of civil rights in America.
I have been traveling in Mississippi for not quite three years, and although I am in pursuit of a different story about race, what I have discovered is that nearly every Mississippi story sooner or later touches this one. Ends up—in some spiritual, homing way—right here, in absurdly misnamed and depopulated Money, along this ribbon of Illinois Central Railroad track, on this backcountry asphalt, [End Page 177] before this tottering and yet somehow entirely beautiful and abandoned building that once sold fatback and bamboo rakes and Lucky Strikes and lye soap and BC headache powder and so many other simple, needed goods and wares and staples to the locals. Sold them to black field hands of the Delta, primarily, who were living, as their forebears had lived, in tarpaper shacks stuck up on cinder block.
Which is why I've come, why I'm standing now on this spot. I am trying to dream my way into the brutal murder of Emmett Till. I am trying to imagine what some of it was like—the "it" being many things, but primarily the unpunished lynching of someone callow and roly-poly from the North who was visiting relatives in Mississippi and who didn't understand, not nearly enough, about the pridefulness and bigotries and paranoias and taboos and potentially lethal rages of the Jim Crow South.
There is no plaque from a state historical commission. The building is just here, a shrine in ruin, forgotten, recalcitrant, collapsing in on itself, set against memory and the wind and these five decades of change—and non-change—in American race relations.
Jet magazine, in showing the photographs of the battered corpse a little while after the killing, reported to its readers that when Till was pulled from the sludge-green river, a piece of skull three inches square fell loose from his head. Those pictures in Jet helped awaken a generation of future young black activists to what would soon, in the next decade, be called the Movement. That's the true legacy of the lynching of Emmett Till—it put so many eyes on the eventual prize. (Three months later, on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a 42-year-old ascetic-looking seamstress named Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat on a homebound supper-time city bus, and this, too, became one of the anchoring posts of twentieth-century American history. Her refusal to move, she later said, had...