GUEST BLOGGER

Erica Plummer is a recent MFA graduate from Brigham Young University. A writer at work. A wife (married to Louise’s son). A mother of four. Find her blog at www.onemagpie.blogspot.com.

You said, “Bye Baby” or you whistled.

Different people say different things.

But you said it to a white girl.

Or whistled it to a white girl.

That was your crime.

You were fourteen.

You had two pieces of gum in your hand

when you left Bryant’s store.

Before you left for Mississippi’s Delta your mother, Mamie, told you this: “It is not like here in Chicago, Son. Do not look at a white woman. Keep your head down. If you see a white woman walking on the sidewalk get off right away.” You thought she was exaggerating. You got on the train wearing your father’s ring. Mamie had given it to you the day before.

In the middle of the night on August 28th, 1955, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant showed up. They owned the store where you bought the chewing gum, where you said, “Bye Baby” or whistled. Your uncle, Moses Wright, begged for you, “Just give him a whipping and let him go.” They took you anyway.

Here is the part I hate to think about. They took you to a shed. They beat you with a pistol, cut out your eye, mutilated you, shot you through the head. They tied a 70 pound cotton gin fan around your neck with barbed wire and dumped you in the Tallahatchie River.

Three days later your body rose up out of the Tallahatchie’s murkey waters. Your body was sent home to Chicago. The mortician told your mother to keep the casket shut. Not to look. But she did, she forced herself to look at your dead body, inspecting it carefully. Mamie, your mother, then insisted on an open casket funeral. “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said.

Thousands of people came to the funeral. It was estimated that every one in five people had to be assisted out of the funeral home because they were so shaken. Reporters took pictures of you, your corpse, and printed them in black publications across the country. Your people were mad. Outraged. Furious. But their anger wasn’t enough to bring justice. Not to Mississippi’s delta.

On September 23, just three weeks later, the all-male, all-white jury (seated in the first two rows) aquitted both of your killers. Deliberations took one hour and a jury member said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us so long.” Everyone knew they were the killers. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant admitted that they had taken you out of your uncle’s house. There was a witness who heard your cries and the beatings right on the defendant’s property. But the defense claimed that the men had let you go and that your body wasn’t really your body, that you were safe in Chicago and that the whole ordeal was a plot by the NAACP. It wasn’t enough that when you rose out of the river you still had on your father’s ring. Four months after the trial J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant sold the story of how they killed you to Look Magazine for four thousand dollars. The NAACP asked congress for a federal investigation into your murder. It was not granted. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant lived their lives as free men,

But people remembered you. Three months after your trial, Rosa Parks, in Alabama, refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. There had been other instances of a black woman refusing to give up her bus seat. But this time people were energized because of you. The day of Rosa Park’s arrest, volunteers made 35,000 copies of a handbill that said, “We are…asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” One day led to ten months.

Picture of Martin Luther King

The people needed a leader to help them organize, to inspire them to keep walking, to give them hope. The young MartinLuther King Jr. became their leader. They organized carpools, held meetings. King was arrested; his home was bombed. After nearly a year of walking, on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on buses operating within the individual states, deeming it unconstitutional. The next day Blacks and Whites got on the bus as equals. Martin Luther King went on to lead the civil rights movement. He was arrested over twenty times, assaulted at least four. He gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On Monday, I celebrate him. I celebrate you too. I especially celebrate your mother. She opened up that casket and let me see what they did to you. Now I remember. Now I wont forget. My own freedom is bound with you.

Advertisements