North vs. South

"We never have any trouble until some of our southern niggers go up north and the NAACP talks to them and they come back home."

These were the words in 1955 of H.C. Strider, then sheriff of Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old visitor from Chicago, was murdered.

The murder was a defense of the Old South against a perception of Northern arrogance. Two men were arrested and tried for the crime, but an all-white jury pronounced them innocent. Strider, firm in his conviction that out-of-line northern blacks -- standing behind the banner of the disruptive NAACP -- were to blame for planting insurrectionist ideas in the minds of otherwise circumspect local blacks, got on national television and spoke his mind to that effect.

It sounded raw and defenseless -- the ranting of an irredeemable racist. But might he have been right?

The split between North and South has always figured centrally in the Emmett Till murder case, more so than in any other defining incident of the civil rights era. Rosa Parks' refusal to relinquish her bus seat, the murder of Medgar Evers, and so many other incidents were about Southerners fighting Southerners on the maintenance or transgression of a code of behavior that up to that point they had all followed.

The highly publicized group murder in 1964 of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, three young CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workers, was an issue of North and South, but in a different way. The fact that Goodman and Schwerner were white outweighed the reality that they were also from New York.

But Emmett Till was representative of those blacks who had migrated North to an integrated (by law, if not always in practice) society. Every anxiety and grudge that white Southern society held against the North, whatever liberties it believed the North unduly afforded blacks, came to the fore in Till's murder. The murder was a defense of the Old South against a perception of northern arrogance. It was a violent public rebuke to all those blacks who had abandoned the sharecropping farms and domestic servitude of the South during the Great Migration. It was a curbing of the New Negro, a demonstration of who's the boss down below the Mason-Dixon Line. And, most important, it was a warning to black activists -- to the few blacks who were winning elected office and to black civil rights organizations like the NAACP -- that their influence was unwelcome in Dixie. (Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs, the state's first African American to hold such a post, attended the Emmett Till trial as an observer, to the anger of local politicians and law enforcement officials who called him "boy" to his face in the courtroom.)

That's the racist history of the dynamic, the range of sentiments encapsulated in H.C. Strider's territorialist articulation. But it's interesting to consider how the case's resurrection today, 50 years later, plays out some of these sentiments in reality. In many respects, the forces behind last week's announcement by the US Department of Justice that it will reopen Emmett Till's case are precisely what H.C. Strider considered the biggest threat to Southern, small-town white supremacy: northern blacks.

When the filmmaker Keith Beauchamp -- a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who spent the last decade living in Brooklyn -- decided to put evidence he uncovered while making a documentary about the murder to use in the courts, he enlisted the help of African American elected officials where he lives. Beauchamp and his lawyer Ken Thompson approached Letitia James, a member of the City Council of New York.

James responded by backing a City Council resolution calling on Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice to reopen the Till case. Her colleague, Council member Bill Perkins of Harlem, authored the resolution. Additionally, Congressman Charles Rangel of Harlem and New York Senator Chuck Schumer (who is not black) introduced an identical resolution in Congress. Representative Bobby Rush of Chicago, an African American, introduced a separate resolution on the topic earlier this year.

How significant is it that these actions were taken by agents based in the North?

"It's ironic that New Yorkers or Northerners are the ones trying to get this thing reopened and have been successful," Thompson told me. "It's so strange that we took the lead, but we all did." (Alvin Sykes, a resident of Kansas City, who had previously brought the perpetrator of a race-based murder to justice, founded the Emmett Till Justice Campaign with Beauchamp and collaborated with Rep. Rush.)

Suggesting a difference in political orientation or maneuverability between blacks in the South and the North can be seen by African Americans as playing wedge politics with ourselves. People are reluctant to say anything that might undermine the notion of absolute solidarity in the ongoing fight against racism. They are also overly careful not to disrespect the history of the Civil Rights Movement, which after all was an accomplishment, mostly, of Southern grassroots organizing.

But in ignoring nuances, the important issue of how location continues to influence African American political agency goes undiscussed.

"That's not an issue for me," James told me. "Knowing the history of the South, I find it hard to believe," that similar lobbying efforts did not take place among African American leaders or elected officials. "Not knowing what, if anything, happened in the South, I'm not in a position to comment on it," she said.

"I don't want to talk about a divide," said Council member Perkins. "It's polarizing and divisive and not in a family way."

An old saying has it that whites in the North don't care if blacks climb too high, as long as they don't get too close, whereas in the South whites feel the opposite. Whatever truth the saying holds, it does shed light on not only why Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955, but why African American politicians in Illinois and New York, not Mississippi, pushed to reopen the case in 2004.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution, one of the largest circulation newspapers in the South, reported last week that "some Mississippians were perplexed at hearing the decision." A city clerk in Sumner, whose race was not stated, said, "I don't think it's a good idea. It seems like we have a better community here now between blacks and whites. I feel [the investigation] focuses on the bad and we need to focus on the good. I've worked real hard to let everyone know we treat all people the same here."

An article in the New York Times last Wednesday discussed the overall sentiment in old Tallahatchie regarding the Justice Department's announcement. Black elected officials, like Senator David Jordan, "one of the area's most politically powerful men," said they still felt encumbered by overtly hostile racism. Jordan recounted how his open support for an African American candidate for lieutenant governor had resulted in his wife's car being pelted with eggs. His home, he said, had been vandalized so many times over the past decade that he put up a surveillance camera outside his front door.

"As long as you go with the status quo, things are all right," Jordan told the Times. "But when we push for change, the polarization comes again."

Nicholas Boston is a New York-based writer.

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