Blog by: Leo Dilts ’24, Michael Rojas ’23 and Jackson Miller ’23

Fannie Lou Hamer was civil rights activist who led voting drives and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Our continued journey through the South, exploring significant sites of the Second Reconstruction, took us to the Mississippi Delta. In the Delta we saw memorials of leaders and martyr’s alike, with tour guides who brought to bear on our souls the weight segregation bore on Black people in the Jim Crow South.

Our tour first took us to the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial, where a statue is located celebrating the life and preserving the legacy of the civil rights activist. Prior to this trip we knew very little about Hamer, which is reflective of the lessons taught about the Civil Rights Movement prior to Wabash. In Dr. Shamira Gelbman’s Politics of the Civil Rights Movement course, we discuss in-depth the role and forgotten voices of Black women within the movement, and have learned to recognize the failings of our prior educations. We do this, in part, because we tend to only learn about the leaders who brought about key wins and successes. We often operationalize success of a leader by way of how their goals were achieved. We then forget Hamer because her voice, and the voice of her party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (DNC), were silenced at the 1964 Democratic National Convention by then-presidential frontrunner Lyndon B. Johnson. It is somber to think that this woman who caused such a stir at the DNC is so seldom remembered. This visit to the memorial brought upon our hearts how fickle legacy is. Hamer was a national player in the Civil Rights Movement.  We should take head of the leaders we don’t remember, remember that more people contributed to your liberties than we remember, and reflect on our history. Let’s recognize the giants on whose shoulders we stand.

As we moved from the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial, we began to visit the great many Emmitt Till sites in the Delta, which only exist because of the efforts of the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC) and local benefactors. While much work had been done to preserve the sites for posterity, the fact of the matter is that near equal work is done to destroy this part of our history. The “River Road” monument, where it is believed Till’s body was found, was destroyed and ripped from the foundation. Even if this was accidental, the sign prior was riddled with bullet holes. One of the students on the trip lived near Grant County, which played host to the last public lynching in the state. Where he lived, the Native American/Delaware Indian markers are also destroyed, and markers of lynching’s are torn from the ground in due form, seldom remembered. Deliberate work is being done to destroy the legacy of the Jim Crow and Black history. As arbiters of that history it is our calling to impart the wisdom of the past onto others.

 The Tallahatchie County Courthouse has been rehabilitated and made into a permanent memorial to Emmett Till and an educational site about the fight for civil rights in Mississippi.

We continued on to a few more sites which instilled even more somber feelings. We hurt for the 14-year-old Black boy who was tortured, mutilated, shot, and discarded into the river with no regard for his mother, his family, and his humanity. As we went to each site which corresponded to one of these events, we felt a sense of sorrow, rage, and helplessness, even 66 years removed. We could see how this child’s very public story would inspire others into action. Actually, being able to see the locations where this happened and hearing from people who work to remember him resonated deeply with us. It was the type of learning that cannot be done in a classroom.

We sat in the Tallahatchie County Courthouse where an all-white male jury acquitted the men who were involved in Till’s murder. We sat in the juror box where hate sat. This thought did not cross our minds until we reflected later that night, but we sat in the very seats where hate let men go free for the death of this young man. During our discussion we heard an apology from the community for the murder and the gross miscarriage of justice that followed. As we left the courthouse, flanking our left was a historical marker for the trial, and to our right was a large granite Confederate monument.

The next part of our trip took us to the Emmett Till Intrepid Center. We toured the museum and studied historical artifacts and portrayals that highlighted the murder of Emmett Till. After learning that this barn was where Till was brutally beaten and dehumanized, it really started to sink in, and we began to feel a sense of discomfort. We valued the information that we were taking in, but it was difficult to comprehend we were standing on the grounds of where this kid was brutally massacred by these men. The picture of the timeline was able to give more insight to the different significant events in the struggle for civil rights. It stretched from 1860 to 1949, and the one that was interested us most about was the last point on the timeline. This point was about the African American soldiers in 1949 that risked their lives in World War II for a country that would not reciprocate this. It saddened us because these brave men fought in this brutal war, and then even if they survived and got to rejoice from their victory, they still had a war of their own living in the United States, a supposed “free country.”

This timeline, featured in the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC), gave students an in-depth look at significant events in the struggle for civil rights.

Our time in the Mississippi Delta was extremely meaningful. Seeing all of the spots that were associated with Till’s murder made us realize the true horrors that occurred that night and validated the struggle leaders, like Hamer, tackled. We had always heard about his death and how he was beaten before he was killed, but we never realized the extent. Seeing the gin where his killers had gotten the fan; touring that museum; seeing the ramp where they moved him; reading the descriptions of what happened to him; seeing where he likely died; and sitting in the courtroom where his killers were acquitted, affected us tremendously. We could not believe that anyone could do such terrible things to a Black boy because he whistled at a white woman.

This tour of the Delta brought with it heavy emotions from all present, each location heeding more reverence than the last as we honored Till’s death by remembering him. The Delta speaks to the prevailing issues of racial tensions in the United States, with active work being done to preserve history, and equal work done to repress it. In the end, it will depend on where you live what messages you hear, but this is the truth we all now know.