Through a grant from Teaching American History, I was part of a group of teachers who spent months reading, listening and watching films and videos about the civil rights movement before we took a trip to the South.
But still it was history—far away, untouchable and remote. That was until the first day in Sumner, Miss.
During the school year, I had taught the Emmett Till story to my high school students. Till was a 14-year-old black youth tortured and murdered because he flirted with a white woman. This story is also about the courage of Till’s mother who decided to have a glass-lid casket created so the world could see what had happened to her son. My students were mesmerized by the story.
But now, I stood in the courthouse in Sumner, where Emmett’s uncle, Mose Wright, had bravely pointed out Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam as the men who’d come to get Emmett out of bed in the middle of the night from his Money, Miss. home. And I stood by the stairs where Milam made out with his wife for the cameras in celebration of the innocent verdict.
We met a retired teacher who lived in Sumner. At the time of the trial, she was 15 years old and was “paying attention to boys, not the news.” She now had fascinating insider knowledge. Her teaching assistant was Mose’s daughter, Emmett Till’s cousin. Mose became more real to me, not just a man from long ago, but Uncle Mose, Father Mose to this woman working at a local school. It was the strangest feeling—almost as if history was in the cobwebs of that courthouse and I could touch it.
It was a long day of travel. We started in Branson, Mo., ended in Greenwood, Miss., with a stop in Money. There’s not much in Money. There are a few houses, some railroad tracks and the ivy-covered skeleton of the store where Emmett flirted with Roy Bryant’s wife. I felt nothing there—no brushes with history, just a spot in the road with a historical marker. I wanted to follow Emmett’s last footsteps, to go to the shed where he was beaten, to stand on the riverbank where he’d been shot before a roughly 70-pound fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire and he was rolled into the river. I wanted to offer an emotional memorial.
Rosa Parks said that she saw Emmett’s story in the news and it inspired her. A few months later she stayed in her bus seat, an action that began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A young pastor was asked to lead the boycott and Martin Luther King Jr. said yes.
Unlike so many other deaths that were swept under the rug, the horrors of Emmett’s death were brought into the open. Although the killers went free, his death helped light the fires of the civil rights movement.
This was only the first day of our trip and I was just beginning to see that, although many might wish it, the past was not buried but was here in the stories of a local, in the bricks of the court room and in every cotton gin fan like the one that was placed around Emmett’s neck.
During our visits to the civil rights “hotspots” I had almost felt history brushing by, so close to me, something I’d never experienced before. Now I can pass that on to my students.
Blevins is a high school English and journalism teacher in Missouri.