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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

After 50 years, nation comes closer to truth behind shameful killing that sparked social change
Duluth News Tribune, Aug. 28, 2005

There is no reason to go to Money. To get to the tiny central Mississippi town from Interstate 55, a visitor could turn on State Route 7, drive 20 miles southwest to an unpaved road and head six miles west until it ends. That's the town center and pretty much all there is to it, and the way out is back the way you came or the longer but more improved county road 10 miles along the Tallahatchie River south to Greenwood, then 30 miles on U.S. 82 back to the interstate. Money isn't on the way to anywhere, and unless you've got some business there and Mississippi plates you'd probably stand out even without opening your mouth and speaking in Minnesotan or any other Northern dialect. Explaining your presence, especially at dusk on a Sunday with no stores open and nothing to see, could prove difficult.

Except that this Mississippi town belongs to all of America, just as Concord and Lexington do. Like them, Money saw the first shots of an American revolution in an opening battle the good guys didn't win. At Money, it was a single casualty, a 14-year-old boy visiting from Chicago whose receipt at the general store for wolf-whistling or saying "Hey, baby" or something of that sort to a woman of a lighter complexion than his was a beating leaving him nearly (but not entirely, as an autopsy and DNA test last week confirmed) beyond recognition, a bullet in his head, and a rope tying him to a cotton gin fan to submerge his body in the Tallahatchie River, the same rolling waters that Billy Joe MacAllister would at least enjoy the good fortune of being a fictitious character within in the tale of his fabled end.

Quite different from the hush-hush surrounding that dusty Delta scandal, the murder of Emmett Lewis Till 50 years ago today sparked outrage, coming hardly more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education proclaimed racial segregation an injustice unacceptable to Americans black and white. The fury over the murder escalated when the two men tried for killing Till were found not guilty by a jury of their clones, and it exploded further when they shortly thereafter admitted their terrorist act to a Look magazine reporter in exchange for $4,000. That indignation finally turned to action when less than four months later and one state away a woman named Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Her quiet protest ignited a year-plus boycott and set the modern Civil Rights Movement into motion, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in Congress and putting an end to legalized segregation in America forever.

If this jaunt to the deepest depths of the South to mine the darker moments of our nation's history seems irrelevant to our community, it's the same search for truth that remains unresolved in our own legacy of shame, 35 years before Till breathed his last, when the streetcorner hangings of three African American men in Duluth led to no bus boycotts or mass movement beyond that of terrified black citizens racing away from the hatred and danger of a far northern city. If Emmett Till sacrificed his life to become an icon of change, the lives of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton and Isaac McGhie remain enigmatic at best, with even the spelling of "McGhie" in doubt. Neither are their true looks a certainty. Their likenesses in the memorial at First Street and Second Avenue East are an approximation based on 21st century models. Unknown also are the names of all those who rushed them to their end, perhaps as many as one in 10 Duluth residents of the time, whose descendants include many of us here today.

Does that portend then that current generations are somehow responsible for the actions of those who went before? Directly, no, but if the evil of one's ancestors is not to be inherited, what justifies the acceptance of any fortune or honor they may have passed on?

"Sometimes it is easier to believe that evil things come from evil people than confront the reality that evil lives in each of us," Warren Read, the great-grandson of Duluth lynching ringleader Louis Dondino, wrote on these pages three years ago in a painful examination of how a man his mother had known as gentle and loving could have participated in so heinous an act.

"Each time we speak the names of Clayton, Jackson and McGhie, we raise their spirits to a level far above those who swarmed around that Duluth lamppost on a June night more than 80 years ago," Read continued. "By honoring these men in our time, in a small way, we offer the return of that right that was so suddenly and violently taken away."

And so it is regarding Till, even if his far more publicized death is not marked by a memorial as we have in Duluth, distinguished as the nation's only monument to the remembrance of such an event at the site of the crime. Today, the body of Emmett Till that so shocked a nation in 1955 when it was displayed in all its mangled gore on the cover of the late John Johnson's Jet magazine has been exhumed, and the investigation reopened and tests performed, laying to rest forever the specious defense suggestion that maybe it wasn't him in the river and coffin after all. It's a search for truth even after the two who readily admitted to the crime have gone on to their maker to answer for it, with the very strong possibility that others may have been complicit and may yet be brought to justice. It's an investigation reminding us there's no statute of limitations on murder and especially hate crimes and even those of long ago, such as the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., culminating in the conviction this summer of unrepentant Klansman Edgar Ray Killen. The full story of Till's demise will inevitably soon enough be known, whether due to DNA or the information explosion or advances in historical research, all of which are rapidly ushering in a technological judgment day -- if not a theological one -- in which responsibility and truth can never be denied.

There is no reason to go to Money, not if one is seeking a shortcut on the way to someplace else, which it isn't -- except to visit a tiny crossroads where American history changed with an atrocity that launched a march to freedom. And as science and, we pray, human reconciliation advance, to partake on a journey of truth to free us from a terrible past.

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