CLARKSDALE – When Michael Scanlan and Dennis Lansang, teachers at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, were deciding what experiential learning course they would teach for the first time during the winter and spring semesters, they quickly settled on either the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement.
But, it wasn’t until after reading New York Times best-seller, “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy Tyson that they chose to develop the course around that book and teach it by visiting the Delta and other places in the South.
The details of racial injustice and violence in the deep South are well chronicled and many Southerners – black and white – continue to grapple with that legacy. Now, in an attempt at solace and reconciliation, the group of high school students from New Jersey are getting a first-hand look at that history while learning Till’s story, engaging with civil rights leaders and visiting historical sites – while also acknowledging the racial tensions of today.
St. Benedict’s Prep, an all-boys private school previously featured on CBS “60 Minutes,” is devoted to “preparing boys in and around Newark to fulfill their potential as emotionally mature, morally responsible and well-educated young men.”
And exploring the “The Blood of Emmett Till” fits into that mission.
The story of Till’s brutal slaying continues to arouse deep passions. In 1955, while visiting relatives in Mississippi, Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago, was lynched for allegedly making flirty remarks towards Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white woman. In the book Tyson brought forth the missing transcript of the murder trial and an interview with Bryant where she recants her story. (Read Bryant’s full testimony here.)
“I was appalled, but also inspired by Mamie (Till)’s example. Through the tragedy she was able to propel … almost like she embodied the anger of all of the other people who had fought racial injustice,” said Lansang. “There’s a story, a saying [that] the murder and slaying of Emmett Till was the impetus for the civil rights movement.”
Beginning last December, the students researched the history of race and justice in America, particularly in the South, while following the evolution of the civil rights movement. Till’s story sparked interest among nine students of color, and essentially, birthed the course “Insights Beyond Newark: An Exploration of the American South and the History of the Civil Rights Movements.”
After studying the course for over five months, the students mapped out a trip to the South –Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi – to get up close and personal with history.
Their journey through the Mississippi Delta and other iconic civil rights locations ushered them through the South’s racial past and the complexity of its present.
Dispelling the myths, confronting a bloody history
Knowing they would be visiting the South – particularly the Mississippi Delta – like others before them, the group had preconceived notions of racism and poverty, not to mention warnings of lynchings. This alone made the young men wary of the journey.
But, though they were forced to reckon with some of the nation’s “ugly history,” they found beauty in the people and their struggle, which at the end of their journey, inspired these young folks to be change agents.
The students had already cultivated their own ideas of what the South would be:
“Everyone’s a farmer. Everyone has cowboy hats.”
“Everyone has really strong accents.”
“There’s a lot of … racist people.”
“It’s very poor, impoverished.”
The student population at St. Benedict’s Prep is around 78 percent black or Latino and more than half come from low-income families, according to the school’s website. Newark, where the school is located, is about 50 percent black.
The students say they encounter racism daily, whether it’s being followed by storekeepers while shopping or being called the N-word to their face.
“Going to school in the North in New Jersey, not at Benedict’s, I’ve experienced racism to my face from white people. But, when I was talking to one of the students yesterday (from Griot Arts in Clarksdale), they were like, ‘I never got called the N-word’ or ‘White people had never been like that to me,’’ said senior Jesus Paulino.
“For some reason, it was odd to me because down here, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?”
Because of their experience with racial discrimination in New Jersey, they were prepared to experience it “ten times as worse” in the South. But to their surprise, it was different, they said.
“I should have felt unwelcomed, but it’s been the opposite. If anything, I felt more welcomed by white people down South for the most part than I did up North,” said Kevin Jackson, an 11th grader. “And I think that’s really funny because up North we say, ‘We’re really progressive, and we’re moving in the right direction,’ but I can’t even walk into a store without being followed.”
Although overt racism didn’t hit them in the face, they said reality set in that racism in the South was more institutional.
“It’s weird how like the different dynamics and how the population and how it happens affects the way racism impacts somebody. I think it’s more institutional than social when it’s down here,” said Paulino. “Down here, it’s a lot less to your face. It’s this person has way more opportunities than this person.”
Though acts of injustice and racial tension persist in the South, the “Southern hospitality” prompted the New Jersey students’ to rethink preconceived notions of racism.
The schools athletics coach had spoken with the students prior to the trip and “kind of expanded on the point, like yeah, there’s a lot to be fixed, but also not every white person is racist,” said Elijah Allen-Smith, a 12th grader. “And he was talking about there’s going to be angels in your life and people are going to help out all throughout the way and ever since he said that I’ve been realizing that.”
Even with this reality, the feelings of anger, sadness and grief resurfaced once they took a more in-depth look at sites and history from Till’s story.
Traveling from the Virginia Military Institute to the Southern Negro League Museum in Birmingham, Alabama, to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery – the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of African Americans enslaved, terrorized by lynching and racial segregation – the emotional fatigue took a toll on the students and teachers before they entered the Delta.
“I did more than I wanted to do … It was like after I was seeing certain stuff, I just ignored it. I didn’t want to see it anymore. I was just so angry by it and how people could be so hateful and honestly, I wish we could’ve did more fun stuff,” said Jackson, the 11th grader.
Confronting this history is important, but there must be days to process the information and enjoy other activities, said Lansang. Students reflect on what they learned by writing in journals daily, blogging about their experiences, and having roundtable talks with one another.
The group did hang out with Clarksdale locals at barbecues, listened to blues music at Ground Zero Blues Club, visited local churches and volunteered at the Clarksdale CARES animal shelter and the care station.
The trial, the Tallahatchie River and the courthouse
The history lessons continued. Students received the history from locals, but they also taught the history to their peers. As student teachers for the Till sites, seniors Jules Goutin and Wood-May Joseph led the discussions.
After briefing the other students of what’s to come, they stopped at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the Till trial took place. This is where an all-white jury acquitted Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, of murdering Till. The two men later confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine.
“A whole lot of folk – here domestic and abroad – are familiar the Emmett Till tragedy,” said Ben Saulsberry, staff member at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, to the group. “In spite of a lot of the things that can be debated … there’s no debate that this trial happened in this town or there’s no debate that racism showed itself in the proceedings and the acquittal.”
He went on to talk about the racial climate of the town over 50 years and the challenges.
“A lot of folks were traumatized by the acquittal and it compelled people to not wanna talk about it … It took the county 52 years where they could collectively talk about race and racism,” said Saulsberry.
“It wasn’t just about a child being murdered. It was the protection of white supremacy and it plays out when you read the transcripts and read the closing arguments by the defense.”
Students stand in the location near the river where Emmett Till’s body was possible found.
“Just looking at those waters makes me think he’s still there somewhere somehow,” one student says. pic.twitter.com/sRG4EKHyyu
— Aallyah Wright (@aallyahpatrice) May 17, 2019
As students stood in front of the Tallahatchie River and looked at the photo publicized in Jet magazine showing Till’s face, disbelief was planted on their faces. How could anyone “do this – to a kid at that,” asked one of the students.
“This place is peaceful to me. I can hear the river in the background … to know that happened here is unsettling,” said Jonathan Dulce, an 11th grader. “Just looking at the waters, trying to make me feel in that place when Mamie found her son. Just looking at those waters makes me think he’s still there somewhere, somehow.”
Conversations ceased as the students looked out into the river before heading back to the van. They then traveled to the store, Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, where the incident between Till and Bryant took place.
The murder of Till and the acquittal of Bryant and Milam posed the larger question to Joseph who asked, why do some white people fear the social and economic plight of African-Americans?
“… So to them, people of color, people from different cultures are starting to take things into their own hands and having their own power and being able to be a citizen … it’s threatening to them,” said Paulino.
But the story of Till and others like him are reminders that the fight continues to put an end to racial and economic discrimination, the students learned.
“When we tell stories of Emmett Till and all of the people who died for us, it’s like, even though they’re not here, they’re still alive,” said Joseph to his peers.
Even after what they called “hard history,” instructors encouraged students to see the light at the end of the tunnel and speak up when they see injustices — as did the representatives at the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama when they asked students to sign a pledge to become change agents.
“The kids were like, ‘I’m just a kid. I don’t have any money. How can I be an agent of change?’ [But we told them] every time you see injustice from now on and you don’t do something about it, you just stepped on a black man’s neck, too, right? You’re just completely not honoring the sacrifice of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Selma. You’re the same person hitting John Lewis over the head,” said Lansang.
“That’s where the change begins.”