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Civil rights-era landmark eyed for restoration

By JERRY MITCHELL

The Clarion-Ledger

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

museum.

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

University.

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

magazine.

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 said.

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.

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger,

http://www.clarionledger.com

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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