Monday, February 12, 2007

Essay 1695

From USA Today…


Big piece of civil rights history is falling apart

By Jerry Mitchell The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

MONEY, Miss. — Years of neglect and the battering winds of Hurricane Katrina have all but destroyed the country store where the crime that galvanized the civil rights movement began.

The events at Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in August 1955 led to the murder of a black teenager named Emmett Till. “Like the Liberty Bell, it’s the symbol of the movement,” Democratic state Sen. David Jordan says. “That ought not to be lost.”

Leflore County Tax Assessor Leroy Ware says the store isn’t worth a penny on the county’s books — but that didn't stop the crumbling store’s owners from initially asking local officials last year for $40 million. They later reduced their asking price to $4 million.

Local officials balked and countered with a $50,000 offer. Talks broke off, and the store has continued to rot, despite being included on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s list of the state’s “10 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

Harold Ray Tribble, whose family owns the property, says he plans to start working in March with local, state and national officials to return the property to its original condition. “We want to restore it,” Tribble says. “It’s a part of history, and it’s about to fall down.”

Till, 14, a Chicago teen visiting his cousins in Mississippi, walked into the general store on Aug. 24, 1955. Some people said he asked for candy. Some said he asked the proprietor, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, for a date.

She testified that Till grabbed her and called her “baby,” but Till’s cousins said he never touched her or said anything inappropriate. As Till exited the store, he whistled at her, the cousins say.

Several nights later, Bryant’s then-husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till and beat him repeatedly before shooting him. They tossed him into the Tallahatchie River.

After their arrests, the pair admitted abducting Till but denied killing him.

At trial in September 1955, defense lawyers claimed civil rights leaders had planted the body in the river. Jurors acquitted Bryant and Milam, who later admitted their guilt in Look magazine.

Tribble says his family wants to preserve history and has artifacts from the old store. “We’ve got all the signs, the cash registers, the shelves,” he says.

If the store were returned to its original condition, it could be a tourist attraction. Last year, dozens of student groups from across the nation came to the area to visit civil rights sites, including the store, Jordan says.

In neighboring Tallahatchie County, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission is creating a civil rights trail for visitors that would include markers to recognize such places as the courthouse where Till’s killers were tried and the spot in the Tallahatchie River where his body was found.

A recent Justice Department probe into Till’s slaying also renewed interest in the case. Last year, the FBI recommended local prosecutors take a closer look at Carolyn Bryant. Roy Bryant died in 1994 and J.W. Milam in 1980.

A Leflore County grand jury will take up the case in March.

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