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We Said the Sheriff’s Name. But What About Emmett Till’s ?

Courtney Clark, Strider Academy, Class of 1988

Tallahatchie County, Mississippi

I was 24 years old in 1994 when the State of Mississippi retried Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, and many old lynching cases were thrust back into the spotlight. The most shocking and famous—and closest to home in every sense of the word—was the torture and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Till’s murder and the ensuing trial and acquittal of his accused murderers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, made worldwide news in 1955. Months later in an interview for Look magazine, his killers bragged about their guilt. Till’s murder was cited by many as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.

In retrospect, it seems almost unbelievable that I could have grown up in the town where the Till trial took place and never heard of him or the case until I was 24. It’s particularly surprising considering I knew the families and the attorneys who defended Milam and Bryant. My aunt worked as a secretary to Harvey Henderson, one of the defense attorneys. My grandparents’ neighbor sat on the jury. These were people I knew, liked and admired.

My complete unawareness of Till seems more remarkable when you consider that I graduated from Strider Academy, a segregation academy named for the sheriff who investigated the Till murder and went on to become a state senator. Shortly before his death in 1970, Clarence Strider donated the land for Strider Academy. I went to school with relatives of the admitted killers, grandchildren of jury members, and was taught history by one of Clarence Strider’s granddaughters-in-law. A member of the academy’s board served on the Till jury, which let his murderers go free. How could I not know who Emmett Till was?

As a child I was unaware of the racial disparities operating in the Mississippi Delta in the 1970s and 1980s. Our neighbors were black, and we were good friends who played together, ate together, and never thought anything about it. It was the same at school. My favorite elementary school teacher, Mrs. Sanders, was black, and her daughter Sheila was my friend… until it was time to start fifth grade. In Tallahatchie County in the 1970s and 80s, fifth graders entered West District Middle School. Maybe I silently knew more than I acknowledged about racism because I innately knew, without questioning why, that I would transfer to a “private school” before I started fifth grade. Almost every white child I knew transferred to one of the academies after fourth grade.

When I entered my classroom at Strider Academy in the fall of 1980, there were a lot of faces that I didn’t recognize, but many that I did because they too had transferred to Strider before public middle school. There were also a lot of faces missing, faces like those of my black friends Erica and Shelia with whom I had started first grade. And for the next eight years I would sit in all-white classrooms.

On the surface at the academy, race was never an issue. It was never even brought up, in fact. I never heard the overt racial rhetoric and rants that some academy students experienced. Why? Because at Strider we existed in an insulated white world already. Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement were glossed over as subject matter, a footnote to Mississippi History.

The recent death of George Floyd demonstrates the dangers that come from not understanding our past as a cohesive history of brutality against black men, of insulating ourselves from the ugly truths of racism. In an article for Vanity Fair,

Mississippi-born writer W. Ralph Eubanks examines the murder of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, and others through the historical lens of Till’s murder. Eubanks interviewed Timothy Tyson, the author of The Blood of Emmett Till, who stated, “If history proves anything, it is that neither ignorance nor innocence of history will protect you from its consequences. The innocent suffer because of mistakes from the past that have become catastrophes of the moment.” History lives on.

At Strider we weren’t exposed to the ugliness and violence of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we overheard conversations where the adults discussed the decision to enroll their children in one of the academies due to the “dangers” faced by white students in the public schools. It was always the same. “West District is too rough. I heard a kid got beaten up. A girl was threatened in the bathroom.” My parents, like hundreds of others, felt forced to place their children into the academy system out of fear. The white flight that pervaded after segregation, created a belief in white parents that their children were not safe in the middle to upper level public schools, that they were under threat from black students. What no one recognized at the time was that the threat came from separating us, from turning black kids into “the other,” something set apart from ourselves. Bryant and Milam certainly considered Emmett Till to be something separate from themselves, something less than. Is that how Derek Chauvin saw George Floyd?

Parents also argued that they enrolled their children into the segregation academies because the public middle and upper schools offered an inferior education. “The elementary is fine. You can still get a good education there,” was a common argument for the invisible line of demarcation separating the lower and middle schools in white parents’ minds.

I never stopped to ponder this. Only years later when I entered high school and comprehended the birds and the bees would I realize that the real concern for large numbers of the parents was the fear of miscegenation. I didn’t know that word then, but I understood what the overheard whispers of “Somebody said they saw her with a black boy” meant. For most children puberty kicks in during middle school, and many white parents feared the mixing of the races.

Which brings us back to Emmett Till, as it inevitably would. This idea of interracial sexuality led directly to Emmett Till’s murder. Carolyn Bryant, a white wife and mother, accused fourteen-year-old, black Emmett Till of making a pass at her. He was 14, a middle school student, yet Bryant’s husband and his cronies were so offended and angered by the accusation that he made a pass at Carolyn Bryant that they tortured him and killed him. Would they have been as angry and offended if a 14-year-old, white boy had been accused? When Till’s body was found, Clarence Strider, the sheriff of Tallahatchie County and the benefactor of Strider Academy, denied that the mutilated corpse was the body of Emmett Till.

I graduated from Strider Academy in 1988 never having heard of Emmett Till, never knowing that the torture and killing of this 14-year-old teenager 33 years earlier had helped drive the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast, when I was 14, I was in my freshman year at Strider Academy taking driver’s ed. When Emmett Till was 14, he was murdered because Milam and Bryant believed that he had the audacity to speak to a white woman. Clarence Strider testified in defense of Till’s killers. So perhaps it is not surprising that 25 years after Till’s murder, I and many other white children, were separated from black friends we’d known most of our lives and moved to all-white segregation academies. Even deeper and more transformational than the fear that we’d flirt and pair off, we might have kept hearing each others’ stories. I might have heard about Emmett Till and so much more. It would have made a difference in so much if we had.

Courtney Clark holds an MFA in creative writing from Mississippi University for Women and works as a writing instructor at the University of Mississippi. She is a lifelong resident of the Mississippi Delta and lives in Cleveland with her dog and two cats.

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