Land of the Till Murder

This article was written by a reporter for Ebony magazine who covered the Emmett Till murder trial. It is significant in portraying the state of race relations in the Mississippi Delta at the time. It appeared in Ebony (April 1956): 91–96. Each section is divided and numbered with the original pagination. See also, the author’s follow-up article, Land of the Till Murder Revisited, written 30 years later, and reprinted on this website.


Outwardly peaceful, the Delta is blazing today with fierce racial tensions

In a white Baptist church near the small Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, a minister was preaching about salvation:

“There is room in Heaven for all people,” said he. “There is a place for good white people. And there is a place for colored folks. They have their own separate Heaven, and it is just as good as ours.”Hearty amens wafted up from the congregation.

A sermon like this could hardly have found such naive acceptance in a less race-charged place than Mississippi, where segregation is thought to be the will of God himself.

God, say numerous whites in Mississippi, was the original segregationist. He made the races different, they claim, because he wanted them to live apart. White people insist they were not intended to mix with black ones any more than peacocks mix with sparrows, for whites “are superior” to Negroes, “made of a finer clay.” Thus, they conclude, it is the duty of whites to rule, of Negroes to serve.

And these beliefs they have crystallized into laws, taboos, traditions, which even now, in this age of revitalized democracy, fix the pattern of life in Mississippi.

The state has been referred to in the foreign press as the “land of the Till murder.” Racial clashes between Negroes and whites there have made headlines in a Babel of languages. In lands far distant from America, where Mississippi is only a word, a name, for a state or a city or a province–many know not which–people frown in bewilderment as they hear it, and say: “Is that not the place where the Negro boy was killed?” And they wonder how, in a democracy, where all men are brothers and all men equals in the eyes of the law, such a crime could go unpunished.

Mississippi’s current racial strife is an embarrassment to a nation which is attempting to live up to the word and the ideal of democracy and convince other races and peoples that it is the best way of life for


them. But Mississippi’s problems, like those of many deep southern sections, are old problems, not easily solved, for they have been so long ignored. They date back more than a century.

The story of Mississippi, and particularly of its fertile Delta, is one of black men and white men, black soil and white fiber. Cotton and an abundance of slave labor built the anti-Bellum society that went up in the smoke of the Civil War. But the master-slave relationship, which grew up during the years preceding it, did not die. When the war ended, thousands of Negroes remained in the state that once was their prison, trying to build lives of independence where they had enjoyed no independence, trying to adjust to that strange new thing called freedom. The whites returned, viewed the burned-out fields and the wrecked houses and with bitterness in their hearts began gathering up the pieces. The pieces included the Negroes, who went back to work, in many instances, for the same families who had once owned them.

And so the old system re-established itself. Once more Negroes worked the fields; whites owned the land, marketed the crop. Negroes were the servants; whites the masters. “Black laws” were passed and enforced, purportedly to help Negroes adjust to freedom, but serving in reality to restrict them to a place in life far beneath that of the poorest of white people. Once again the cotton crops flourished; but Negro rights did not.

Cotton was in great demand after the war. Prices bid for it were high. New land was needed to replace that destroyed by erosion resulting from a one-crop system. So, in the late 1870's, whites moved into the Delta, taking black labor with them.Together, they drained and cleared the swampy land, solved the problems of seasonal flooding. And in the leaf-shaped plain they salvaged they found soil fertile as that of the Nile valley.


Today, in Mississippi, the two races are almost equal in numbers. There are close to 1,200,000 whites; 990,000 Negroes. The majority of the Negroes live in the Delta where, in some counties, they outnumber whites two, three, even eight to one.

The bulk of the Delta’s colored residents are sharecroppers, laborers in gin mills, servants, day-workers. Their lives are dreary ones; long weekdays of back-breaking labor; lively Saturdays in town; Sundays in a Baptist or Methodist church.

The soil the sharecropper tills is rich. Yet he is poor. Poverty filled his past, dogs his present, shapes his future. He lives in a shack; wooden walls, dry as a match stick; corrugated roof, freckled with rust; two rooms, perhaps four, standing on rickety legs of crumbling brick. There is a well, an outhouse, possibly a small garden. This is his world, his place.

His income is the lowest in the nation, his home the most inadequate, his education the most severely limited. Yet he is, paradoxically, both the pillar and the castaway of the segregated universe in which he lives.

Higher up on the ladder stand the Negro farmers. Each year their numbers increase. The farmer shares many of the worries of the white man. He frets about the weather and the cotton prices and the availability of labor. Because he owns his land, he has a measure of dignity and independence denied the cropper, but he has nothing like full social equality with whites of similar affluence.

Still higher up are the professional classes: the teachers, doctors, preachers, lawyers, small businessmen, clerks, salesmen, undertakers–people of learning, people of achievement, who make up those thin layers that are the Negro’s middle and upper classes. On the whole


these people live in the towns and cities, where education is more easily acquired, where jobs are more remunerative and health and housing standards somewhat higher than in the country.

But Mississippi Negroes of all classes share a common bond: ostracism. They are all second-class citizens, no matter how high they rise. They are nearly all disfranchised, although they have the constitutional right to vote. In the entire state, only 20,000 are qualified voters, and fewer than 10,000 participated in the 1955 Democratic primary for Governor. Each individual is hemmed into his “place” from birth to death, is viewed with a mixture of paternalism, dislike and fear by the majority of whites.

The white man’s world is in many ways like that of the Negro, only there are more whites who are wealthy and more who have attained middle-class status. But the poorer class is large, its living standards lower than in any other state in America. And it is the poorer white who views the Negro with the greatest hostility. The Negro is his opiate and his panacea as well as the object of his derision. However poor the white man is, he has this buffer, this cherished fiction of inborn superiority, to place him in his mind above the Negro. He does not wish to see the colored person attain rights and opportunities equal to his. For then the panacea would no longer exist. There would be no one to look down upon.

The more prosperous white also fears Negro ambition, questions what the consequences of integration would be. He is told by his leaders that it would bring tragedy, that white civilization would die in a “black flood,” that race mixing would lead to inter-marriage and intermarriage to race mongrelization.So he fights integration on every level, puts up more and bigger white-colored signs, enacts more laws, writes new ones when these are


found unconstitutional, forms more economic pressure groups, boards more bullets, taps more phones, listens to more speeches painting the “horrors” of integration.

And the tension rises, thickens, tightens, until the grip of it is agony and something must be done to relieve it and sometimes the relief is found in violence.

But to the stranger travelling [sic.] the Delta, the land of the Till murder is a place of outward peace. Broad flat fields reach out evenly toward the far horizon. White bolls froth from the ripening cotton and here and there smoke curls from a lonely chimney and the voices of men can be heard singing. Cars rumble along dry back-country roads trailing funnel-shaped smoke clouds in their wake. It appears the peaceful country of the storied South.

But unrest is everywhere, and almost palpable thing. Through the length and breadth of the narrow plain, it nags at the minds of people. Hard to describe, hard to define, it grips the heart in cold fingers.

White men know this cannot go on. Black men know it, too. Somehow the unrest must be lessened; somehow the fears must be stilled. Violence, it is becoming more and more obvious, is not the answer. Nor is inflammatory political oratory, or legislation designed only to delay the solution of a challenging problem. Sound leadership is what Mississippi needs most and sound leadership is what it most lacks. Producing it could well be the first step.

The race problem in Mississippi is old: venerable, but not invulnerable. Tackling it in a cool, optimistic manner could be the second step. And the steps should not be too reluctantly taken, for progress and change are knocking at Mississippi’s door, turning the key, and cannot be held back. This truth Mississippi’s people know they must accept.