Jackson Daily News
August 25, 1985
EMMETT TILL: MORE THAN A MURDER
Poor economy, past haunt Delta towns
By JOE ATKINS
Jackson Daily News Staff Writer
MONEY – Leaning against his father’s pickup truck, 13-year-old Edward Cochren peered across a dirt lot at the abandoned store, a ramshackle, two-story hull protected from intruders by rotting pillars, a nest of irritable wasps and years of Delta dust.
“I wonder how something like that could happen,” said the black youth.
“Ever since there’s been a world, there’s been wrongdoing going on,” said his has father, 71-year-old Jimmy Cochren, a lifelong farm worker who still “picks up” what few jobs are available these days around this rural Leflore County community of a couple dozen souls.
The elder Cochren remembers that a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago named Emmett Till whistled at a white woman outside this same store 30 years ago Saturday and paid for it with his life.
He also remembers that 25 miles northwest of Money in the Tallahatchie County town of Sumner, the two white men accused of murdering Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in September 1955 while the world watched.
The towns of money and Sumner today look a great deal like the photographs and film clippings that catapulted both into the international spotlight in the late summer and early fall of 1955.
The racism believed to have ultimately killed Emmett Till still runs deep in the hearts of some.
“Wouldn’t you have done the same thing?” snapped an elderly white woman in Money when asked recently her feelings about Emmett Till’s death. “He (Till) just wanted to stir up trouble and see what he could get away with.”
Most whites say they aren’t familiar with the incident or prefer not to talk about it.
“I’ve been living here 13 years and I’d never heard of it,” says Sumner town clerk Bonnie Cheshier, 40, a white Arkansas native.
“People in the county are still embarrassed by it, “ said William M. Simpson, 36, a white Sumner native who teaches history at Louisiana College in Pineville, La.
Most blacks and whites today agree that, over the past 30 years, the two towns’ evolution has resulted in improved race relations amid a declining economy.
“There’s just as much difference between night and day as between now and then,” said Roosevelt Sutton, a 65-year-old black man who lives just southeast of Sumner in Webb.
Today, blacks here vote, patronize the same businesses as whites and even hold a few public offices. Yet, jobs and housing are scarce and blacks remain on the bottom economically.
Mechanization on the plantation has drastically reduced jobs for poor and middle-class blacks and whites. Many plantation owners – saddled with increasing production costs, indebtedness, low crop prices, reduced profits and increased competition from foreign markets – barely make ends meet.
Money is still a remote, unincorporated outpost along Money Road between the Illinois Central Gulf railroad tracks to the east and the Tallahatchie River to the west. The nearest town of any size is Greenwood, 10 miles to the south.
Money boasts a white church and a black church, two general stores, a post office housed in a mobile home and a grain storage and marketing company that used to be a cotton gin.
Beyond the railroad tracks are cotton fields stretching toward the horizon. The handful of homes in Money is mostly near the river, on the west side of the road.
“There never was a whole lot to it to start with,” chuckled 65-year-old Wallace Lay, white owner of Lay’s Trading Post in Money. But, he said, “It’s changed. At one time, you couldn’t drive down the blacktop for all the cars on Saturday. ‘Bout all the blacks are gone.”
Harold Terry, 62, a white U. S. Department of Agriculture agent who lives on nearby Whaley Road, agrees. “There were tenant houses up and down this toad, a lot of black people. It’s the change in farming operations,” he said.
No one knows this better than Louvenia Jones, a 63-year-old black woman living in a brick home built by the owner of a local plantation. Only one of her 12 children now lives in the Money area.
“They’ve all grown up...married and gone in different directions,” she said.
Tenant farmers and small farmers now are rarities in the countryside surrounding Money. Modern plantations use machines to pick cotton and chemicals do the work the cotton choppers used to do.
Leflore County had a 11.4 percent unemployment rate in July, once a prime month for chopping cotton, compared with the state’s July unemployment rate of 10.9 percent and the nation’s rate of 7.4 percent.
Even when cotton choppers are needed today, the work is temporary and precariously kept. “Used to, I’d chop cotton all day for $2.50. You can make $35 to $40 a day now,” Jones said. But, she added, “If you stump your toe, you’re fired.”
Like Money, Sumner has seen vast changes that contradict the languid air of tranquility it inherits from the Cassidy Bayou drifting along a tree-lined channel northwest of the town square.
“It is a quiet, docile community,” said 39-year-old Sumner Drug Store pharmacist Spencer Hudson with a pride typical of residents in the town. “Sumner is the oasis of the Delta.”
The neat, well-groomed town square, which forms a circle around the recently renovated Tallahatchie County Courthouse and a Confederate statue, seems a picture of stability. Despite its small size, Sumner has two drug stores, two insurance agencies, a grocery, barber shop, laundry, flower shop, dental clinic, medical clinic, bank, savings and loan association, automobile dealership, lawyers’ offices and Mississippi Power & Light Co. offices.
A uniform-making factory owned by Angelica of St. Louis recently located near Sumner, bringing 125 new jobs.
Still, even the textile jobs and the near-absence of empty storefronts in Sumner couldn’t prevent a 10.2 percent unemployment rate in Tallahatchie County in July. With the lack of jobs for farm workers, the agriculture-based economy has put financial straps on retail merchants who depend upon farm income for their business.
The bulk of Sumner’s population, which has dropped from 550 in 1955 to 462 today, is white, Yet more blacks than whites are seen milling around the town square each day.
“To tell you the truth, it’s hard around here,” said Jimmy Lee Moore, a 23-year-old black from Sumner who said he works as a mechanic and cotton chopper when work is available. “It’s hard to get jobs.”
Bank of Sumner President William C. Wood, 45, who is white, said Sumner’s largest source of income is government welfare checks. “The economy is so dependent on agriculture. Any town that depends almost 100 percent on agriculture...it’s kind of a gloomy attitude,” Wood said.
“I’ve never known farmers to be as pessimistic as they are now,” says Betty Pearson, 63, who with her husband operates a 2,000-acre cotton and soybean plantation south of Sumner near Webb.
“We’re just absolutely tied to farming and farming is bad right now,” agrees Frank Mitchener, 51, a Sumner town alderman and large cotton, soybean and rice farmer who served as president of the National Cotton Council in 1981 and 1982. “There is growing pessimism of the economic conditions in this part of the country.”
Even with the economic miseries, race relations in Money and Sumner have come far since 1955, blacks and whites say.
“I thing it has come around 75 percent,” said R. H. Bearden, a 67-year-old black man and retired school principal from Sumner. “At least blacks vote now. They register. They vote for who they please.”
In 1955, 63.5 percent of Tallahatchie County’s residents were black but no blacks were registered to vote. Only a handful of Leflore County’s sizable black population was registered.
Today, 57 percent of Tallahatchie County’s 17, 157 registered voters are black. Roughly 52 percent of Leflore County’s 27,000 registered voters are black.
But racism is still a problem, aggravated by white resentment to the growing dependence of poor blacks on the federal government for subsistence.
“They got too used to things being given to them,” grumbled a white businessman n Sumner recently when asked about race relations since Emmett Till’s death.
An elderly white man in Money agreed even as he pointed out that many white, well-to-do landowners are equally dependent on federal loans to finance their farm operations.
“I think they were prejudiced in that day. I think they are still prejudiced in the Delta. It runs too deep,” said the Rev. Millard Caulder, 33, white pastor of the 183-member First Baptist Church is Sumner.
Jimmy Cochren also once harbored some of those deep feelings.
“I had a lot of thoughts against whites,” the elder Cochren said. “When I became a born-again Christian, I put all those thoughts out. I forgive ‘em.”