Monday, February 11, 2008

The Brown v. Board of Education Murders

Most Americans who are not totally ignorant of U.S. history know about the law case Brown v. Board of Education (See text of Brown v. Board of Education). In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that public schools segregated by the race of the students were inherently discriminatory. This reversed the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, in which the Supreme Court ruled that separating the races was legal in the United States.

Until I read David Halberstam's The Fifties (See pages 430-441) I did not know about what could be called the Brown murders. After the Brown decision was made the usual racist social institutions, particularly but not exclusively in the states of the former Confederacy, organized a backlash. This consisted largely of threatening rhetoric and well-established methods of economic coercion and public humiliation of African Americans

The Reverend George W. Lee of Belzoni, Mississippi tried to pay his poll tax and register to vote in 1955. When the local sheriff, Ike Shelton, refused to accept the poll tax, George Lee threatened to take the matter to court. On May 7, 1955 Lee was murdered while driving his car. Sheriff Shelton engineered a cover-up. No one was arrested.

A small number of African Americans had been registered in the South since the Xth Amerndment had given them the right to vote; most were registered Republican not just because Lincoln had freed the slaves but because the Democratic Party and racism were synonymous throughout that period of time. Lamar Smith, however, must have been Democrat, but that did not help him when he voted in the Mississippi Democratic Party primary in Brookhaven. In broad daylight on August 13, 1955, in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse, he was killed by a shotgun blast. No one was brought to trial for the murder.

It was the 3rd Brown murder that shook the news media and then the nation from their slumbers. Emmett Till was fourteen years old. He lived in Chicago, but had gone to Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, to spend the summer with relatives. He was not a civil rights activist, but he made the mistake of making a lewd remark, or a remark that was interpreted as lewd (we don't know his side of the story) to Carolyn Bryant a married white woman who worked as a store clerk. Till was murdered by the the husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam a few days later. He was shot in the head and dumped in the Tallahatchie River on August 28, 1955. He had been brutally beaten before being shot.

This time there was a trial. This time the national press showed up. Among others, a black Congressman from Detroit, Charles Diggs, attended the trial. The jury set the men free. Bryant and Milam later sold their story to Look magazine for $4000 described the killing in detail.

But outside the South both white and black Americans were repulsed by what they had heard. Even among predjudiced white segregationists in the South their was repulsion at the brutality of the murder.

It would be a many years before civil rights legislation would end most segregation in the United States. But with then Vice-President Richard Nixon pushing for executive action to uphold the Supreme Court ruling, with the national press largely turned against segregation, and with African Americans willing to push harder for their rights, in retrospect we can see that the tide had turned. Civil Rights were for all American citizens, not just white men.

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