/A hard conversation about racism How ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ led high school Northerners on a civil rights journey to the South

A hard conversation about racism How ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ led high school Northerners on a civil rights journey to the South

Nonprofit Mississippi News CLARKSDALE: When Michael Scanlan (teacher at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, Newark, New Jersey) was trying to decide which experiential learning course to teach during the winter and spring semesters of 2012, Dennis Lansang settled on the Civil War or Civil Rights Movement. After reading Timothy Tyson’s New York Times bestseller, “The Blood of Emmett Till”, they decided to create the course around the book and have it taught in the Delta and other parts of the South. Many Southerners, both black and white, continue to struggle with the legacy of racism and violence in deep South. The group of New Jersey high school students are now able to get a firsthand look at the history of the South. They have been learning Till’s story, visiting historic sites, and engaging with civil rights leaders. This is all in an effort to find solace and reconcile. St. Benedict’s Prep is an all-boys school that was previously featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Its mission is to prepare boys in Newark to be emotionally mature, morally responsible, and well-educated young men. This includes exploring “The Blood of Emmett Till.” Deep passions continue to be stirred by the story of Till’s brutal killing. While visiting family in Mississippi, Till, an African American teenager from Chicago, was lynched after making flirty remarks about Carolyn Bryant (a white 21-year old woman). Tyson provided the missing transcript from the murder trial as well as an interview with Bryant in which she retorts her story. Bryant’s complete testimony can be found here. “I was shocked, but also inspired by Mamie’s example. Lansang said that she was able, through the tragedy, to propel… almost as if she embodied all the anger of those who had fought against racial injustice.” “There is a story, a saying that Emmett Till’s murder and slaying was what sparked the civil right movement.” The students began researching the history of race in America and the development of civil rights movements. Nine students of color were interested in Till’s story and created the course “Insights beyond Newark: An Exploration of the American South, the History of the Civil Rights Movements” after having studied the course for five months. The students then planned a trip to the South (Alabama Tennessee, Mississippi) to see the history up close. They traveled through the Mississippi Delta and other landmark civil rights sites to learn about the South’s past and present. The truth behind the myths and a dark history. They were aware that they would be visiting the South, particularly the Mississippi Delta, just like other visitors before them. The young men were wary about the trip because of this. Despite having to face some of the country’s “ugly past”, they discovered beauty in the people and their struggle which, at the end, motivated them to become change agents. They had their own visions of the South. According to the school’s website, everyone has cowboy hats. Newark, the school’s home, is approximately 50 percent African-American. Students report that they are subject to racism every day, whether it is being followed while shopping at the store or being called “N-word” by their teachers. “I’ve been exposed to racism from white people since I went to school in the North of New Jersey, not Benedict’s. Senior Jesus Paulino said that they had spoken to one of the Clarksdale students, Griot Arts, yesterday and were shocked to hear that they had been called the N-word. “For some reason it was odd to my because down here, it’s not that way. ” Because they had experienced racial discrimination from New Jersey, they were ready to experience it “tenfold as bad” in the South. It was actually quite different, they claimed. “I shouldn’t have felt unwelcomed but it has been the opposite. Kevin Jackson, a 11th-grader, said that he felt more welcome by South African whites than I did in North. “And that’s funny, because up North, we say, “We’re really progressive and we’re moving forward,” but in South Carolina, people are more institutionalized. Although they didn’t feel racially attacked, it was clear that racism was more prevalent in the South. It’s amazing how different dynamics, how people live and how they interact with each other affect the impact racism has on someone. Paulino stated that it is more institutionalized than social down here. “Down here it’s much less to your face. It’s that person who has more opportunities than this individual.” While racial tension and injustice persist in the South. The “Southern hospitality,” prompted the New Jersey students to question their preconceived notions about racism. Elijah Allen Smith, a 12th-grader, said that the schools athletics coach had talked to students before the trip. He “kind of expanded upon the point, like yeah. There’s a lot need to be fixed but also not all white people are racist.” “And he was talking to you that there are angels in your life, and people will help you out all along the way and since that time I’ve been realizing this,” said Elijah Allen-Smith, a 12th grader. The emotional fatigue caused by the journey from the Virginia Military Institute, the Southern Negro League Museum, Birmingham, Alabama to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, was felt by both students and teachers as they made their way to the Delta. This memorial is the first to honor the legacy of African Americans who were enslaved, terrorized through lynching and racial separation. “I did more than what I wanted to do… I didn’t want to see certain things anymore. It was too much for me to take in. Jackson, a 11th-grader, said that he was angry at the hateful people and it made him feel so mad. Lansang said that it is important to confront this past, but that there should be time to process the information and engage in other activities. Writing daily in journals, blogging about their experiences and engaging in roundtable discussions with each other are ways students reflect on the lessons they have learned. They enjoyed a time with Clarksdale residents at barbecues, listening to blues music at Ground Zero Blues Club and visiting local churches. The group also volunteered at Clarksdale CARES and the care station. The trial, Tallahatchie River, and the courthouse were the next lessons in history. The history was not only shared with students by locals but also taught it to their peers. Seniors Jules Goutin, Wood-May Joseph and Wood-May Joseph were the student teachers at the Till sites. After briefing other students about what was to come, they stopped by the Sumner courthouse, Mississippi, where the Till trial occurred. Bryant’s half-brother, J.W., and Roy Bryant were acquitted by an all-white jury. Milam was accused of killing Till. In a paid interview with Look magazine, the men confessed to their crime. Ben Saulsberry (staff member at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, Sumner), said to the group, “A lot of folk – here domestic and overseas – are familiar with the Emmett Till tragedy.” “Despite a lot of things that can be discussed… there’s not debate that this trial took place in this town or that racism was displayed in the proceedings, and the acquittal.” Saulsberry went on to discuss the 50-year history of the town’s racial climate and the challenges. Saulsberry said that many people were traumatized by this acquittal, and they felt compelled to avoid talking about it. “It took 52 years for the county to be able collectively talk about racism and race.” It wasn’t about a child being killed. It was about the protection of white supremacy. You can see it when you read the transcripts. One student said, “Just looking at these waters makes me believe he’s still somewhere somehow.” pic.twitter.com/sRG4EKHyyu — Aallyah Wright (@aallyahpatrice) May 17, 2019
Students stood in front the Tallahatchie River, looking at the Jet magazine photo of Till’s face. They were shocked. One student asked how anyone could do this to a child at that. “This place feels peaceful to me. Jonathan Dulce, a 11th-grader, said that he can hear the river in background. “It is very unsettling to me.” “I just look at the water, trying to feel in that spot where Mamie found her son. The water alone makes me believe he’s still there. The students then walked to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market where they witnessed the Bryant-Till incident. Joseph was astonished at the murder of Till and the acquittals of Bryant & Milam. He asked the bigger question: Why do white people fear the economic and social plights of African-Americans. “… “They, people of color and people from other cultures, are beginning to take matters into their own hands, and have their own power and being citizens… it’s frightening to them,” stated Paulino. The students learned that Till’s story and those of others like him serve as reminders that there is still a fight to end racial discrimination. Joseph shared his story of Emmett Till’s death and the stories of others who have died for him, and it felt like they were still here. Instructors encouraged students to look beyond “hard history” and to speak up when injustices are occurring. This was the same approach that the Equal Justice Initiative representatives in Alabama used to encourage students when they asked them to sign a pledge to be change agents. The kids said, “I’m just an ordinary kid.” I don’t have money. How can I be an agent for change?’ We told them that every time you see injustice and don’t take action, you’ve just stepped on the neck of a black man. You are completely disrespecting Jimmy Lee Jackson’s sacrifice in Selma. Lansang said, “You’re the same person who hits John Lewis on the head.” “That’s where change starts.”_x000D