The race-based murder of black teen Emmett Till still divides Mississippi after six decades, NPR reported. The 14-year-old was found in the Tallahatchie River on August 31, 1955, after he was beaten and shot to death for allegedly violating Jim Crow norms. His death helped to spark the Civil Rights movement.
As one example of the long-held tensions surrounding Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi, the NPR article mentioned a memorial sign that was erected in 2008 next to the spot where Till’s body was recovered. After being repeatedly vandalized and filled with bullet holes over the last 11 years, the sign was finally removed in July following an incident in which three University of Mississippi fraternity brothers posed for a picture in front of the sign holding firearms. Nine years after Till’s murder, the so-called “Mississippi Burning” trial brought into the spotlight the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the racism thriving in Mississippi—the same racism that led to Till’s brutal slaying.
Two Infamous Hate Crimes in Mississippi
In August 1955, Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten, and shot in the head. His offense? Allegedly flirting with a white woman. After he was murdered, his body was weighed down with an industrial fan and tossed into the Tallahatchie River in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. His killers were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. Several months later, they confessed to the killings and sold their story to Look Magazine.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were abducted by several cars full of KKK members, beaten, murdered, and buried near a dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi, just two hours southeast of Tallahatchie County. They were hunted down and killed while investigating an arson incident in which Klansmen set fire to a church and beat black parishioners. Half of the 14 Mississippi Burning conspirators were convicted; the other half acquitted.
Racism and the Law
Adding to the horrific nature of these crimes is that the hate that killed all four men came from members of the state’s legal system. According to Professor Douglas O. Linder, the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, the party of Klan members who killed Schwerner and his colleagues acted on a tip from Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy Cecil Price. Price, along with local sheriff Lawrence Rainey, was a known Klansman.
Even the judge who tried the Mississippi Burning case, Federal Judge William Harold Cox, was a known and ardent segregationist and bigot. Professor Linder mentioned that during an earlier case, prosecutor John Doar was in the same room when Judge Cox referred to African-American would-be voters as “a bunch of chimpanzees,” an account that made headlines. “Cox’s statement appeared the next day in a story in The New York Times and led to an impeachment effort that almost cost Cox his job,” Professor Linder said. And yet Cox remained on the bench.
Likewise, in regards to the case of Emmett Till, former county prosecutor John Whitten—whose father was a defense lawyer for Emmett Till’s killers—spoke with NPR for their article. In an interview, Whitten said that Till “overstepped his bounds to a degree, some people thought, and they cured him of his problems.” Whitten also complained that civil rights activists who sought to memorialize Till were guilty of “stirring crap up” and “dragging up the race card.”
Sixty-four years after Emmett Till’s murder—and 55 years after the Mississippi Burning killings—many residents of the state of Mississippi hope to move above and beyond the high-profile killings. However, judging by the erection and destruction of the Emmett Till memorial sign, it appears that Mississippians’ hopes might stem from roots that are as divided as ever.
Douglas O. Linder, JD, contributed to this article. Professor Linder is the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College and from Stanford Law School. Professor Linder has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa and Indiana University School of Law.