By JERRY MITCHELL
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A push is under way to preserve a
crumbling symbol of where the civil rights movement began.
Decades of neglect have almost destroyed the Bryant Grocery and
Meat Market in Money, but few have forgotten the events during the
summer of 1955 that started in the Leflore County store with a
wolf-whistle and ended with the slaying of an African-American
teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till.
"This was the Alamo, not just for blacks, but for everybody,"
said Greenwood insurance agent Billy Walker, who is raising money
in hopes of buying the building, restoring it and turning it into a
Walker said the Tribble family of Greenwood, who owns the
property, asked him not to reveal the purchase price, but he
acknowledged it's in the six figures.
That a 61-year-old white businessman from the Mississippi Delta
should take on such a project is the latest evidence of the
expanding effort to preserve key sites from the civil rights
movement across Mississippi and the United States.
Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of
Southern Culture, compared what's happening now to what happened
several decades after the Civil War when veterans and others moved
to preserve battlefields and historical memories.
Now soldiers from the movement for racial equality are joining
with others to preserve these civil rights battlefields, said
Charles Cobb Jr., a veteran of the struggle. "People who are in
movements don't think about them until decades later."
Many civil rights sites are being lost because little effort has
been made to preserve them, said Leslie Burl McLemore, a movement
veteran and professor of political science at Jackson State
In Clarksdale, the drugstore run by longtime Mississippi NAACP
President Aaron Henry, which served as a regular meeting place for
those in the movement, is now just a vacant lot, McLemore said.
"They should at least have a marker."
A fire gutted Henry's historic home, McLemore said. "Nothing
has been done to restore it or board it up."
Many of Jackson's historic sites are crumbling, he said. "We
have people coming here from all over the world, and they're coming
to a place that looks like it's dying. It's unfair to people who
fought the struggle."
Change had to take place for people to recognize those in the
movement as heroes, Cobb said. "It's hard for me to see
(Mississippi Gov.) Ross Barnett arguing for the preservation of
civil rights sites."
In January, Cobb released On the Road to the Freedom: A Guided
Tour of the Civil Rights Trail, which details 400 historic sites
from the movement.
While some cities have had civil rights museums for years,
smaller communities are beginning to wake up and document their
past, he said, including St. Augustine, Fla., where the movement
was met by the Ku Klux Klan and violence.
Selma, Ala., recognized the possibility of capitalizing on its
past about a decade after Bloody Sunday, he said. "I can see a
light bulb going off, 'Well, if we're going to have Civil War
sites, why not have civil rights sites?' "
There has been explosive growth in recent years in the number of
civil rights tours taken in the Deep South.
In 1999, the San Francisco-based Sojourn to the Past began
offering a 10-day journey to high school students, teachers and
parents. They not only visit historic places in the movement, but
visit with those who made them historic, such as the Rev. Fred
Shuttlesworth, whose home and church were blown up during his days
as a civil rights activist in Birmingham.
"To stand in a place and imagine how the world changed because
of what happened in this point is inspiring," said Jeff Steinberg,
executive director of Sojourn. "The goal is to take the lessons
these trailblazers left us and connect it to today. How do we take
the lessons of the past and connect it to our lives today?"
Tennessee offers the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the
grounds of the old Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was
assassinated in Memphis in 1968. North Carolina has the
International Civil Rights Center and Museum, built where the
famous Greensboro sit-ins took place in 1961.
Alabama boasts a number of museums, including the Birmingham
Civil Rights Institute, next to the still-standing 16th Street
Baptist Church, where four girls were blown up by the Ku Klux Klan
on a Sunday morning in 1963.
Despite its plans to go forward with a $50 million civil rights
museum, Mississippi has remained behind the curve.
Tallahatchie County is still trying to raise $10 million to
restore the courthouse, where Till's killers, Roy Bryant and J.W.
Milam, went on trial in 1955. An all-white jury acquitted the half
brothers, only for them to confess their guilt months later to Look
Last October, Tallahatchie County officials apologized to the
Till family for what had happened. Members of the Till family have
been invited to return for a ceremony on Oct. 2.
Tallahatchie County is now offering a driving tour of sites
related to Till's killing. The Bryant Grocery - the most famous of
those sites - is in neighboring Leflore County.
"It was the beginning of a movement in America, and it started
right here in Leflore County," said state Sen. David Jordan, who
attended the trial. "This is what inspired Rosa Parks to keep her
seat on the bus in Montgomery. This is what inspired a nation to
push to bring about lasting change."
On his way back and forth to work, Walker watched the condition
of the old grocery grow worse and worse.
In recent years, local officials had approached the family to
sell the store, only to be repeatedly rebuffed.
Some time back, Walker observed a civil rights tour visit the
site. "It was a disgrace for these people coming in to see it,"
He finally decided to do something about it and approached the
head of the family. "Would you allow us to see if we can raise the
money?" he said he asked the man.
The family agreed to sell the store along with the surrounding
property, including a house behind the store.
The family still has the original counters from the old store as
well as other artifacts, he said. He hopes the house behind the
store also can serve as part of the museum complex.
He's hoping a national campaign can help raise enough money.
"I can't believe something that historic has sat there for 53
years," he said. "It just can't fall down and be nothing. It's a
part of history.
"I think people will jump at a chance to save this store. We
just have to get out the word."
To comment on this story, call Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064.
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger,
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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