Chapter X: Hesitating Between Two Worlds1



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Chapter X: Hesitating Between Two Worlds1

Jane Dailey

Work in Progress: please do not cite without the author’s permission

At War With the United States

She knew him by his ring—the signet ring that his father Louis, her ex-husband, bought in Casablanca in 1943, and that was shipped home by the Army in lieu of his body. She had given her son that ring the day before he boarded the City of New Orleans in Chicago on August 20, 1955, on his way to visit family in the Mississippi Delta. In giving him his father’s ring, she had hoped to forge a bond of memory between the living and the dead. Now, the ring had become a talisman gone wrong, a symbol of what happens to black men accused of interacting too closely with white women. The defense attorneys for the men who murdered her boy would claim that the body was too decomposed to be identified, but she could tell by the ring that it was Emmett. As if Mamie Till Bradley could not recognize her baby, even though half his face had been shot away and his body submerged for three days in the pink silt of the Tallahatchie River.2

Born and raised in Chicago, when fourteen year-old Emmett Till entered the Mississippi Delta that summer he crossed more than state lines. The Delta, as described by native son Willie Morris, dominated a singular state, a place “eternally wild, . . . savagely unpredictable, . . . fraught with contradictory deceits and nobilities;” a place cloven by “the gulf between its manners and morals” and marked by “the extraordinary apposition of its violence and kindliness.”3 Mississippi in the best of times was a place of extremes: extreme heat, extreme poverty, extreme beauty; a down-trodden state familiar to the world through Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s fictionalized depictions of it. Relaxed, Mississippi was the gracious hostess, seeing to every need. Mississippi under pressure was like Bill Faulkner drunk: incoherent, suspicious, volatile.

In June 1954, a month after the Supreme Court declared segregated public education unconstitutional in its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a group of Delta businessmen came together to form a new organization, the White Citizens’ Council. Founded by Robert Patterson, a thirty-two year-old plantation manager and composed of the local elite, by October the WCC claimed 25,000 members in Mississippi and outposts in neighboring states.4 Between June 1954 and May 1955, when the Supreme Court issued its school desegregation implementation degree (known popularly as Brown II), the WCC concerned itself chiefly with building its own organizational base and harassing local African Americans. These pillars of the community did nothing violent or ugly—nothing that would strain their consciences on Sunday. They simply used the weapons to hand, which, since many of them were bankers and businessmen, included economic intimidation. When he came to the attention of the WCC, for example, NAACP leader Amzie Moore, a WWII veteran and one of the most influential black men in Mississippi, suddenly found the mortgage for his house and his service station called by the bank that held them.5

While the WCC coalesced, the Mississippi legislature took a variety of official actions in response to Brown. In a deliberate effort to tie up the NAACP in court, Mississippi and other states abolished mandatory school attendance laws.6 The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret police force designed to “prevent encroachment upon the rights of this and other states by the Federal Government,” augmented individual acts of intimidation. Reviving tactics used against black voter registration drives in the late 1940s, many of Dixie’s defenders turned to violence to protect their privileged way of life. The summer of 1955 was a veritable white reign of terror in Mississippi. Between May and August, three black political leaders were gunned down in the Delta. Two, the Rev. George Lee, an NAACP activist and Lamar Smith, a farmer and WWII veteran active in voter registration efforts, were killed; a third, Gus Courts, a grocer and NAACP member, recovered from his wounds and fled the state.7

Emmett Till was not an NAACP activist or a local political leader. He was a teenage boy from Chicago unfamiliar with the elaborate social rules of Jim Crow Mississippi. His mother tried to instruct him before he left for the Delta—always say “yes, Sir” and “no, Ma’am” to whites; hold the door for white men and women alike; step aside for whites on the sidewalk; don’t talk back, don’t get fresh and never look a white woman in the eye—but no crash-course in white supremacist manners was adequate to the extraordinarily tense atmosphere in the post-Brown Deep South. It is also true that Emmett was not the most retiring of adolescent boys. A beloved only child used to having his way and talking himself out of tight spots, Emmett Till was temperamentally unsuited for the South in the best of times. August 1955 was not, by anyone’s measure, the best of times in Mississippi.8 There were men in Mississippi that summer who were prepared to kill children to uphold Jim Crow.

In a remarkable post-acquittal interview with white southern journalist William Bradford Huie published in Look magazine, Emmett Till’s murderers offered two reasons for his death: first, Emmett offended twenty-two year old Carolyn Bryant, the proprietress of a crossroads grocery store in Money, Mississippi, when he sauntered in and propositioned her, or whistled, or was otherwise overly familiar (accounts varied); and second, Emmett was boastful and unrepentant even after Carolyn’s young husband Roy Bryant and his older half-brother J. W. Milam had pistol-whipped him half to death.9 Despite the testimony of Till’s uncle Moses Wright, who verified the body and identified Milam and Bryant as the men who had come to his home in the middle of the night, demanded his nephew, and taken him away, the all-white, all-male jury assembled in tiny Sumner, Mississippi believed the claim of the local sheriff that the killing was an NAACP plot and responded enthusiastically to the defense lawyer’s challenge to “summon their Anglo-Saxon courage” and acquit the defendants.10 In addition to the broader denial of justice, the jury’s action undermined the efforts of Mississippi’s political establishment to protect their state’s reputation by providing a fair trial. Besides Mamie Till Bradley and Michigan congressman Charles Diggs, who journeyed to Mississippi for the trial, nearly 100 newspaper reporters and television crews crowded into the courtroom and broadcast the Till trial worldwide.11

NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins depicted Mississippi in the summer of 1955 as “at war with the United States.”12 White Mississippians saw things in reverse. As far as they were concerned, the school desegregation decisions were an assault on their society by a national government clearly at war with them. At another time, it is unlikely that Emmett Till would have been killed for any perceived breach of racial etiquette. But in the turbulent months following Brown I and II, the impetuous actions of a fourteen-year old boy could be interpreted as challenging the entire Jim Crow system. Emmett Till was caught between two worlds that summer. He was caught between Southside Chicago, where an African American adolescent could swagger in his crepe-soled shoes, and rural Mississippi, where self-assertion could result in a death sentence; between the old world of legal segregation and the emerging, and violently resisted, world of desegregation and potential racial equality. It is not coincidental that Till’s “crime” was being fresh to a white woman. In the context of the Brown decision and the rise of the White Citizens’ Council, a single whistle or “ugly remark” aimed at a white woman by a black male of any age was liable to be seen by Delta whites as an assault on the broader “southern way of life.” This is what novelist and regional armchair psychologist W. J. Cash had meant when he explained in The Mind of the South (1941) that any assault on the segregated South would be felt as an assault on white women, and vice versa, and that “the South would inevitably translate its whole battle into terms of her defense.”13

Nor is it coincidental that Till’s killers portrayed themselves as compelled to act in the defense of white womanhood and white supremacy. As J. W. Milam explained to William Bradford Huie, Emmett sealed his fate by asserting his own equality via sexual access to white women and to whiteness itself through a white grandmother (who, presumably, had engaged in miscegenation). Recalling for Huie his “interrogation” of Till in a tool house, the sentence Milam attributed to Till contains within it everything white southerners had dreaded since WWII: “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are. I’ve ‘had’ white women. My grandmother was a white woman.” These words were intended to justify Milam’s subsequent actions. “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless,” Milam explained. “I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. . . . But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. . . . They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. . . . Me and my folks fought for this country,” the WWII veteran proclaimed, “and we got some rights.” Among those rights was counted an ownership right to white women, a right Milam performed dramatically when, upon his acquittal, he kissed his wife Juanita in a prolonged fashion more suitable for the bedroom than for national television.14

The regulation of black sexuality—both the denial of black men’s access to white women and the access of white men to African American women—had since slave times been counted among the traditional rights of white men and their “folks.” It is emblematic of the shift in American race relations that occurred between 1945 and 1955 that this “right,” while asserted, did not go unchallenged that summer in Mississippi. Mamie Till was determined to impart meaning to Emmett’s death. Insisting that her son’s body be sent by train to Chicago rather than buried in Mississippi, Mamie staged an open-casket funeral attended by 50,000 grim-faced black Chicagoans. In September, Jet, a leading African American magazine, brought southern violence before the eyes of the world when it published sickening photographs of Till’s mutilated corpse. William Faulkner, then in Rome, was shocked and apocalyptic: “If we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”15

Emmett Till’s murder, which was grounded in miscegenation anxiety and clashes over white power and dominance, was politically galvanizing for both white supremacists like Bryant and Milam and their supporters as well as civil rights activists such as Amzie Moore, who identified the death of the boy from Chicago as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in Mississippi. “Personally,” Moore recalled years later, “I think this was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in the twentieth century. . . . From that point on, Mississippi began to move.” White Citizens’ Council founder Robert Patterson agreed, and extrapolated the argument across the region: “I think it all started probably with a case of a young Negro boy named Emmett Till getting killed in Mississippi for offending some white woman. . . . That made every newspaper on the face of the earth. And following that there were other incidents that happened in the South”—such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Birmingham bombings, Freedom Summer, the Selma to Montgomery March, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—“and whenever something happened to a Negro in the South, it was made a national issue against the South.”16

Whatever their disagreements—and they were legion—Moore and Patterson agreed that a lynching to preserve the taboo against interracial sex and intimacy triggered the modern civil rights movement in the Deep South. In other words, it is impossible to understand either the timing of the movement there or its impetus without recognizing the power of white anxiety about interracial sex and the political work accomplished by such worries, and the reaction of blacks North and South to the murder and its rationale. Individuals lashed out in surprising ways; in Chicago, when a white woman on a trolley car accidentally bumped a black woman who had her newspaper open to the account of Till’s murder, “the colored woman’s immediate reaction was to deliver a kalloping backhand blow.” Collectively, the steely expressions of black Chicagoans exiting Till’s funeral, captured on film, displayed the resolve that would, a few months later, characterize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Hindsight may be twenty/twenty, but Till’s great-uncle Mose Wright concluded in 1956 that, “What happened down there last year is going to help us all.”17


Be-Kind-to-Negroes-Decade18
There is a reason the Supreme Court does not reconvene after its summer holiday until the first Monday in October: September in Washington, D.C. The morning of September 11, 1953 was unusually cool, however, and Solicitor General Philip Elman hardly sweated as he made his way to Union Station to pick up his old boss, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Three days earlier the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Frederick M. Vinson, who opposed ruling segregated education unconstitutional in the school cases then pending, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of sixty-three. Frankfurter was coming from his summer home in Massachusetts to attend the funeral mass at Washington Cathedral. Stepping off the train from Boston, Frankfurter’s thoughts focused, appropriately, on death and the divine. As he explained to Elman on the way to the Chief Justice’s funeral, “This is the first solid piece of evidence I’ve ever had that there really is a God.”19

Frankfurter’s irreverent quip reflected the strained relations among the Justices of the Supreme Court, nine men whose arguments over basic questions of jurisprudence had become so toxic that they could barely shake hands. Fractured along personal and political lines, the Court had not ruled on a racial discrimination case since 1948 and was divided between those who considered segregation “Hitler’s creed” (in the words of Justice Robert Jackson, who had prosecuted leading Nazis at the Nuremberg trials after World War Two) and those, such as Vinson, who were unprepared to impose a social revolution on the South. All of the justices were aware of the pitfalls in tackling Plessy v. Ferguson; none cared to be blamed for what one white southerner referred to as “race suicide by judicial interpretation.”20 When five separate NAACP-sponsored school desegregation cases from four states and the District of Columbia came before the Court in December 1952, the justices stalled, and ordered the cases to be reargued in October 1953.21

Divinely-ordained or not, Vinson’s sudden death created an opportunity for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to change the tenor of the Court. Legend has it that he lived to regret his choice of Chief Justice,22 but in the fall of 1953 California governor Earl Warren looked just the man for the job. Then serving an unprecedented third term as governor of the nation’s second largest (ck) and most racially heterogeneous state, Warren was a master politician who could be expected to create consensus among the peacocks on the court, a man who had never sat as a judge but who had come within inches of the vice presidential mansion as Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948 and had stepped aside for Eisenhower in 1952. Although Eisenhower was personally conflicted about the wisdom of school desegregation and came down decisively on the side of the law only in 1957, when he was backed into a corner by events in Little Rock, he was surely aware in 1953 that California had, under Governor Warren, desegregated its schools.23

Patient, genial and aware of the depth of white southerners’ commitment to racial segregation in public life, the new Chief Justice worked assiduously to find the judicial common ground in which to root an opinion on segregated schools. This was no simple task. Warren’s own position was that the Jim Crow “separate but equal” standard was based “on the premise that the Negro race is inferior” and designed to relegate African Americans to a permanent status of second-class citizenship.24 This interpretation of segregation was denied explicitly in Plessy v. Ferguson, however, and Warren was respectful of the doubts of several of his fellow justices about overturning this longstanding precedent.25 To ease worries about the wisdom of outlawing racial segregation entirely, Warren chose to limit the Brown decision to segregated public education alone. The ruling itself, written by Warren and delivered by him on behalf of a unanimous Court on May 17, 1954, was short and to the point. The heart of the opinion was the Court’s declaration that “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs . . . are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”26 The decision in a companion case, Bolling v. Sharpe, invalidated school segregation in the District of Columbia via the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, which, the Court concluded, contained an equality principle. In both cases, Warren deferred the crucial question of implementation, leaving others to decide later what states with dual school systems would have to do to comply with the law.27

The Brown decision has become so iconic that it can be difficult to recognize the jurisprudential strength of segregation’s defenders in 1954. By many reckonings, precedent was on the side of the South: of the forty-four challenges to school segregation mounted between 1865 and 1935, none succeeded. In the early 1950s, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had mandatory or optional segregated school systems.28 An “original intent” argument was unlikely to come out on the side of integration. It could not be said that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment had considered racial segregation incompatible with equality: the same members of Congress who wrote and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 mandated segregated schools for the District of Columbia, and many of the states that ratified the amendment—including those whose ratification was a requirement for readmission to the Union—operated dual school systems. Even the late-nineteenth century leaders of southern interracial political movements, white and black men who championed public education as well as African American suffrage and office-holding, fought to keep public schools segregated in order to prevent them from becoming a political issue.29

On the other hand, as the Court noted in its decision in Brown, “’separate but equal’ did not make its appearance in this court until 1896”—eighteen years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the Court had begun chipping away at the notion of separate but equal within two decades of Plessy, beginning in 1914 with McCabe v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway.30 In 1917, the Court rejected the residential checkerboard law (which segregated neighborhoods block by block). In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), drawing on McCabe, the Court ruled that a law that forced black residents of Missouri to leave the state to obtain legal education was a denial of equal protection of the laws because a white Missourian could attend law school in-state.31 Between 1938 and 1948, the Court did not decide any “separate but equal” cases, but it did hold the white primary unconstitutional, invalidate racial discrimination in jury selection, rule that segregation in interstate transportation facilities violated the Commerce Clause, declare racially restrictive residential covenants unconstitutional, and—in a ruling the Court claimed was controlled by Gaines—decide that Oklahoma had violated the Equal Protection Clause when it excluded a black student from the University of Oklahoma law school.32

In 1950, the Court ruled in Sweatt v. Painter that a “separate but equal” law school established for African Americans was inherently inferior to the University of Texas Law School. McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, decided the same day as Sweatt, ruled that forcing a black student to sit apart at his own table in the cafeteria did not meet the Plessy “separate but equal” threshold. After Sweatt, constitutional scholar David A. Strauss has noted, “a state could not satisfy separate but equal by establishing a new all-black graduate school, because any such school, however equal tangibly, could not possibly match the intangible assets that the white school had. After McLaurin, a state could not segregate African-Americans within the established white school. What was left?” By 1950, it seemed, Plessy was pinned down if not yet sent away: in the view of The New Republic, segregation was “in handcuffs.”33 It followed, as Yale law professor Charles L. Black would write a few years later, that the Brown decision was “awkwardly simple,” requiring “no subtlety at all.”34

This was apologetics of the most elegant sort, suffused with the clarity of hindsight and dismissing or ignoring the arguments put forth, at high decibel, by those regarded as the South’s most eminent states’ rights scholars—the sort of thing only a Texan teaching at Yale could get away with. Several of the justices who voted in favor of Sweatt and McLaurin did not see things this way in 1954. Justice Jackson, who favored desegregation as a matter of moral principle, fretted that he could not argue “that the Constitution this morning forbids what for three-quarters of a century it has tolerated or approved.” Precedent—meaning state, federal and Supreme Court decisions “rendered by judges, many of whom risked their lives for the cause that produced” the Reconstruction amendments—“is almost unanimous in the view that the [Fourteenth] Amendment tolerated segregation by state action.” Felix Frankfurter, who had been associated with the NAACP for his entire legal career, also believed that judicial precedent was firmly on the side of school segregation.35 Although he insisted that he did not consider African Americans an inferior race, Justice Stanley Reed, a Kentuckian, nonetheless argued that segregation served a vital purpose: it “protects people against [the] mixing of races.” Despite this belief, Reed joined the other eight justices in June 1953 when they upheld a Washington, D.C. law that prohibited racially-segregated restaurants in the District, although he, like so many other white southerners, approached this attack on segregation in terms of its probable effects on white women. “[T]his means,” fretted Reed, who lived with his wife at the Mayflower Hotel, “that a nigra can walk into the restaurant at the Mayflower and sit down to eat at the table right next to Mrs. Reed.”36

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