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A Few Not-That-Good Moments in the Civil Rights Era A Few Not-That-Good Moments in the Civil Rights Era

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Politics / POLITICS

A Few Not-That-Good Moments in the Civil Rights Era

When Haley Barbour opined that the civil rights era was not ''that bad'' in his Mississippi town, he did not include a few events that happened not so far away.

Emmett Till.

December 21, 2010

Updated at 11:11 a.m. on December 22.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour raised a firestorm of criticism Monday when he was quoted as saying his memories of the civil rights era were not "that bad" and praising a segregationist group called the White Citizens Council, the effective leadership in that era in his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss.

Barbour backtracked on Tuesday, calling the Citizens Council "totally indefensible, as is segregation." He also acknowledged that the era was "difficult and painful" for his state and nation, especially the persecution of African Americans at the time. For younger readers or others with hazy memories, here are a few examples of the era’s cost in the Magnolia State:

 

Emmett Till

1.       EMMETT TILL

In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old Chicago native who was lynched in the Mississippi Delta in 1955 after speaking with a white woman. While author Stephen Whitman says more than 500 extrajudicial killings of African Americans in Mississippi have been documented since 1882, the case sparked nationwide coverage and indignation. David Halberstam called a trial of two men who acknowledged abducting Till from a relative’s home "the first great media event of the civil rights movement." (They were acquitted by an all-white jury). Bob Dylan marked this saga with his 1962 song, “The Death of Emmett Till." The open casket that carried Till’s body in iconic photographs was replaced in 2005, and it was acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

JAMES MEREDITH

2.       JAMES MEREDITH

In October 1962, after a lengthy challenge, James Meredith became the first African American to study at the University of Mississippi. His entrance prompted riots in which two people were killed, 160 American soldiers trying to maintain order were injured, and 28 U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunfire. Snubbed by many at Ole Miss, Meredith graduated with a degree in political science and later got a law degree at Columbia. In 1966, on a peace march in Mississippi, he was wounded in an assassination attempt. (A photograph of the shooting won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize). In later years, Meredith became a staunch Republican and worked on the staff of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms.

 

MEDGAR EVERS

3.      MEDGAR EVERS

 

The millions of readers of Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-seller “The Help" know well about the suffocating influence of the White Citizens Council and the assassination of Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers in 1963 in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss. home. Evers, a World War II Army veteran, applied to University of Mississippi law school in 1954 and filed suit later, saying he rejected on the basis of race. He engendered hatred among white supremacists for his successful efforts to gain admission of James Meredith to Ole Miss.  An all-white male jury deadlocked twice in 1965 in the trial of a KKK and White Citizens’ Council member in his slaying. The same man was convicted in a 1994 retrial (the subject of the film “Ghosts of Mississippi,") and died in jail in 2001. Evers is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In 2009, it was announced that a Navy cargo ship would be named for him. His death inspired songs such as “Mississippi Goddam," by Nina Simone, “Only a Pawn in their Game," by Bob Dylan, and “I Can’t Go to Sleep," by Wu-Tang Clan.

 

FREEDOM SUMMER

4.       FREEDOM SUMMER

The goal of a group of civil rights activists who traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 was voter registration, particularly from the massive African American population that was intimidated from going to the polls. Three of the activists, James Chaney of Mississippi and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both from New York, were lynched, their bodies buried in an earthen dam. The three had known their vehicle’s license plate number had been given to the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. When Misssissippi refused to try seven white men for their murder, the seven – including a KKK imperial wizard and a county sheriff – were tried and convicted in 1967 on federal charges. In 2005, an eighth man, a local Protestant minister believed to be the planner of the killings, was convicted of murder. The killings inspired the Phil Ochs song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi," and “He Was My Brother," by Simon and Garfunkel, who had known Andrew Goodman in high school and college.

Follow David Beard on Twitter @dabeard.

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