SUMNER and OXFORD, Miss.—Sixty-five years ago yesterday, on Aug. 28, 1955, two white men—Roy Bryant and half-brother J.W. Milam—kidnapped 14-year-old Emmett Till from his uncle’s house in Money, Mississippi at 2:30 a.m. because, supposedly, he had whistled at Bryant’s wife.
They beat the boy, then took him to the Tallahatchie River. There they shot him in the head and used barbed wire to tie a heavy metal fan to his neck, and then dumped his body into the water. An all-white jury later acquitted the men for Till’s murder, despite strong evidence, and they admitted to it later in a national magazine interview.
Protests against racial injustice and police brutality broke out in North Mississippi yesterday on the anniversary of Till’s death and in the wake of another police shooting of Jacob Blake, caught on video in Kenosha, Wis.
From Oxford west to the Delta, citizens, students, and activists took to the streets to raise awareness about the scourge of racism eroding American society.
UM Football Team Reminds Mississippi That ‘More Than an Athlete’
After a players-only meeting early Friday morning, the University of Mississippi football team—both coaches and athletes—marched to the Oxford Square in the rain to protest police brutality in America, and occupied the grounds that a towering Confederate monument sits on in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse. The all-white board of supervisors voted recently to keep the statue, erected in 1907, in place.
Officers from the Oxford Police Department, Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department and UM police were on scene during the demonstration. Several Lafayette County Sheriff’s deputies, most of them maskless, surrounded the statue shortly after student-athletes began their march.
Players chose not to speak to members of the press, preferring to let the demonstration speak for itself. Not long after gathering, the players began marching around the square, shouting “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
One student-athlete standing near the base of the statue held a sign that read, “END POLICE BRUTALITY.”
One player’s words to his teammates gathered around the Confederate monument highlights the problems the student-athletes want to see resolved.
“We’re out here ‘cuz we’re dying. We’re out here ‘cuz we’re getting shot. We’re out here ‘cuz we’re being told we can’t have the same things,” he shouted to his teammates, “… But we can have the same things. We are all equal!”
This protest caught the attention of Oxford, the state and the nation, as the Southeastern Conference athletes—revered by fans across the football-obsessed state and across political divides—articulated what Black athletes and their white allies are saying around the country in response to police brutality: “More than an athlete,” as one student-athlete’s t-shirt read.
‘Racial Reconciliation Begins with Telling the Truth’
At 4 p.m. on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, several protesters gathered at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in Sumner, Miss.—the building where the all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam before the men later admitted to the killing in a 1956 interview with Look Magazine.
They then marched around the town center in opposition to racial injustice and the Confederate statue that stands next to the courthouse. A small group of counter-protesters met them at the monument, one of whom was armed with a pistol. Several of the protesters held signs and chanted, “Come and get your statue,” “Justice for Emmett Till” and “No justice, no peace!”
Several law enforcement officers were on site during the demonstration. Tallahatchie County Sheriff Jimmy Fly told the Mississippi Free Press that police were there in support of everyone’s right to protest.
“I talked with Sonny a couple weeks ago,” Sheriff Fly said of organizer and activist Sonny Strauss. “He was talking about organizing this. and we’re just here to make sure that everybody’s protected, that everybody’s safe.”
The nearby Emmett Till Interpretive Center’s museum director, Benjamin Saulsberry, along with his colleague and executive director, Patrick Weems, greeted the protesters.
Saulsberry said the center supported everyone’s right to protest and was happy to play a supporting role. He and his colleagues are dedicated to properly reckoning with the history of the Mississippi Delta, he said.
“Racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth,” Saulsberry said. “And the truth of the matter is this county and this society at large has to be willing to look at its whole self.”
Saulsberry told the Mississippi Free Press that racism and white supremacy have directly and negatively affected Tallahatchie County. “It’s not always the racial slur, but a lot of the time it’s the policies, it’s the culture. It’s those things that have impacted the decisions people should be able to make without retribution but, unfortunately, that’s not the case,” he said.
‘Hate Is Too Great a Burden to Bear’
Jaafre Smith of Pace, Miss., has lived a life dedicated to the service of others. Smith served 11 years in the U.S. military. Now he’s a community organizer and civil-rights activist.
Smith was on the ground in Sumner Friday helping lead the charge for racial justice in the town where injustice ruled 65 years ago when Emmett Till’s murderers went free.
“We came here today to conduct a peaceful protest in the hopes that we can bring awareness to the racial tension all throughout Mississippi,” Smith told the Mississippi Free Press Friday. “It’s time to be a part of the solution. The solution is to galvanize our people in a political, respectful manner and to show love at all times.”
The demonstration that took place in Sumner is only one of many protests Smith and his colleagues have organized. Smith said he is focused on civil and human rights, women’s rights and prison reform.
“It’s time for a change,” said Lasundra Cameron, an activist from Cleveland, Miss., in nearby Bolivar County. Cameron said that she has been protesting in several cities—Memphis, Jackson, Indianola and her hometown.
Cameron spoke about the legacy of racism in the Mississippi Delta and how her own childhood is rooted in it. Her mother was single, raised six kids and worked two jobs—one of which was picking cotton. She tried to shelter her children from racism in their community, but she could not. Cameron recalled experiencing bigotry for the first time while attending white schools.
“We went to an all-white school,” she said. “Some things we’d get selected for, but some things we wouldn’t get selected for.”
Sonny Strauss, a graduate student at Delta State University and a Cleveland resident, has been protesting alongside Smith and Cameron this summer. He creates the signs the group uses during demonstrations as well.
“Last year in 2019, Emmett Till’s memorial site became bulletproof,” Strauss said, addressing those gathered around the Confederate monument Friday afternoon. “Bulletproof. Shot up and vandalized over and over. Think about that.”
In that incident, University of Mississippi students and Kappa Alpha fraternity brothers Ben LeClere, John Lowe, and Howell Logan were accused of shooting up an Emmett Till memorial site marker after pictures of the trio posing in front of the bullet-riddled sign with firearms surfaced. Black UM student leaders and faculty still complain that the university did not seriously reprimand the students, but were suspended from Kappa Alpha—a fraternity known for its reverence for Confederate Gen. Robert. E. Lee and Old South traditions and symbols.
Strauss said he will continue to rail against white supremacy. He told the Mississippi Free Press that he intends to preserve the momentum that civil-rights movements have gained this summer following the police killing of George Floyd.
“It’s a dangerous world, and it can be better,” Jaafre Smith said Friday in Sumner, “but we all have to come together with that vision in mind. We have to be able to show love even when hate is brought to us. We have to be able to create change where this is no change.”