WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. still remembers clearly the moment as a teenager he thought he was going to die.
Parker was 16 years old, visiting family in Mississippi, when he woke in the early morning hours to the sound of voices in the house. Moments later, the door to his bedroom opened and a man pointed a flashlight and a pistol in his face.
He shut his eyes tight, but the shot never came.
The man moved on to the next bedroom and the next before finding and kidnapping his cousin — Emmett Till.
It was the last time he saw his best friend alive, Parker, now in his 80s, told a packed concert hall Tuesday night (Oct. 25) at Wheaton College, the evangelical flagship school in the Chicago suburbs.
What happened next — Till’s brutal murder, his mother’s decision to allow an open casket at the 14-year-old victim’s funeral, so the country could see what had been done to her son — shone a light on racial violence in the United States and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Mamie Till-Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. (Chicago Sun-Times/AP Photo)
“A picture’s worth a thousand words. That picture made a statement. It went throughout the world, all over the world, and it still speaks,” Parker said of the photographs of Till in his casket, taken by David Jackson and first published in Jet magazine.
The story of Till continues to resonate because it “provides us with a lens to understand racial conflict in our own moment,” said Theon Hill, associate professor of communications at Wheaton College and primary organizer and moderator of Tuesday’s event, “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith.”
“When we see George Floyd killed right in front of us due to the officer’s knee,” said Hill, “when we see Breonna Taylor’s death, when we see Ahmaud Arbery, we’re trying to make sense of what’s happening, and Till’s death, as tragic as it will always be, provides us with a grammar to understand this is what’s happening and this is how you might respond in your moment.”
The enduring relevance of Till’s death is apparent in the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime and signed in March by President Joe Biden, nearly 70 years after Till’s murder.
“A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” by the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. and Christopher Benson. Courtesy image
It was 30 years before anybody asked Parker his account of what had happened over the handful of days in 1955 he and his cousin, who lived in Chicago, spent in Mississippi visiting family, according to Parker, the last surviving witness to Till’s abduction.
In Parker’s account, Till is a jokester, the boy next door he accompanied fishing, picnicking and on other trips. When his cousin found out he was planning to take the train down South to visit his grandfather, he insisted on going too.
“If you didn’t live in Mississippi at that time or experience what it was like, you have no idea what it was like,” Parker said.
He had lived in the South until he was 7 and knew “what you had to do to stay alive and what could happen to you,” he said.
When the younger boy whistled in the presence of a white woman outside a store, Parker said, the cousins left in a hurry. He worried what could happen in a place and time when a Black man couldn’t so much as look at a white woman, he said.
But days passed, and they’d nearly forgotten about the incident. Then came the moment Parker heard voices in his grandfather’s home at about 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, asking about the boys from Chicago.
“Sunday morning should be the safest place on earth for a young man in his house — on Sunday morning, waiting to go to church,” he said.
Shaking and sure he was about to die, he prayed, “God, if you just let me live, I’m going to get my life together.”
That Monday, he returned to Chicago alone, his life changed “completely,” said Parker, now pastor and district superintendent of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Summit, Illinois.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks during the “Remembering Emmett Till: A Conversation on Race, Nation and Faith” event at Wheaton College, Oct. 25, 2022, in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
What happened to Till changed the country, too.
Dave Tell, author of the 2019 book “Remembering Emmett Till,” told the audience Tuesday night that he had become invested in civil rights because of Till’s story.
“The Till story prompted a new generation to stand up for justice, and I think the good news of the night is that the Till story — Rev. Parker’s story — is still motivating a new generation,” Tell said.
It’s a story, he said, the U.S. needs to hear today more than ever. Considering the stories of Floyd and others against the backdrop of Till’s murder, it’s hard to minimize their killings as “a problem of a bad apple or bad cop,” he said.
And the church has a role to play in sharing that story, both Tell and Parker agreed.
The biblical Book of Genesis tells the story of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, Tell pointed out. In the story, God says Abel’s blood cries out to him from the ground, where Cain has tried to bury what he did.
If God demands that voices that have been buried be brought to light as part of the work of justice and healing, shouldn’t the church? Tell asked.
“We’ve got to keep the legacy going — got to keep the story going — and not with animosity,” Parker added.
“Just tell the story. It’s history. It’s real. Tell what happened,” he said.
(RNS) — C.J. Rhodes, pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was grabbing lunch from one of his regular spots when the restaurant manager made an announcement to all the patrons.
“Guys, we have to shut down. We have no water pressure.”
On Aug. 29, flooding from the nearby Pearl River caused complications at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, resulting in a loss of pressure and running water for the entire city.
At more than 160,000 people, Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city and the state capital. Schools, which had only just commenced classes, had to be shut down, and the city lacked water for even emergency services such as firefighting.
The crisis quickly made national news, and people from around the country turned their attention to Jackson seeking explanations and ways to help.
Within the city, residents quickly organized to help their neighbors and communities. At the center of these efforts stood faith leaders.
“Churches throughout the city of Jackson across denomination, class and race have engaged in water distributions at their churches or by giving water away in other ways,” said Rhodes.
His church became a water distribution site. As provisions flooded into the city from around the country, churches like his became hubs for supplying residents. Sometimes churches filled in where municipal distribution efforts were limited. They could stay open after hours to serve people who couldn’t make it to the city’s distribution sites before closing.
Jennifer Biard, lead pastor of Jackson Revival Center Church, lost water several days before the city-wide announcement. She came home and found the faucets simply didn’t work.
While dealing with her own water troubles, she led her church in providing for others in the southern part of the city where they have a campus. Throughout the crisis many water distribution sites were set up at various locations, but Biard and her volunteers went even further. They loaded up cases of water and hand-delivered them to individuals and businesses.
“One thing people don’t understand is that when you have people who are disabled, people who are without transportation, they may not be able to go out to the distribution sites,” she explained.
Individual churches were not the only bodies that got involved.
Reginald M. Buckley is the pastor of Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. He is also the president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi (GMBSC), an association of churches providing mutual aid to member congregations.
“There’s only so much any local church can do … (the convention) acts as a connector,” Buckley said.
His goal was to mobilize people and supplies from across the state and nation to help people in Jackson. The state convention has its own 18-wheel truck as well as an extensive network of churches and personnel they contacted to help.
“Though this is a trying time, one of the things that I am most grateful for is the unity that people are able to observe, how they are seeing pastors and churches come together regardless of race, regardless of denomination, regardless of anything that would divide. They are seeing the body of Christ come together like never before,” Buckley said.
Despite the efforts of churches and faith communities to provide relief, the water problems in Jackson are much deeper than a breakdown at the water plant.
The city had already been under a boil water notice for a month before the entire water system failed. Even after the city’s water pressure was restored nearly a week later, the boil water notice has remained in effect.
Although the water plant has come back online, the infrastructure issues remain.
“Now that the plant is up and running, water is flowing again, now we have to live with pipes bursting … We still have lead leaching from the pipes into the water. We still have the EPA saying the city has failed to do a number of things and if they don’t remedy those things, there may be federal seizure of the water system,” Rhodes said.
Given the continued failure to bring Jackson’s water infrastructure system up to date, Buckley said he is preparing for the next crisis.
“What we’re absolutely convinced of is that we’re going to be faced with this again, and not in the distant future but in the near future,” he said.
Buckley is working to build a stockpile of supplies to have on hand the next time the city loses water. “We are inundated with water right now. We are partnering with the Church of Christ Holiness to create a reserve and supplies center to house water, buckets and all kinds of supplies,” he said.
The constant lack of clean water and water pressure has worn on Jackson’s residents, 80% of whom are Black.
“We should have water,” Biard, who is white, said. “We should have water whether it’s cold or hot or snowing or raining.”
Jackson exists alongside wealthier suburbs including Madison, a community north of the city that is also the wealthiest in the state.
After years of experiencing a crumbling infrastructure alongside the comparative wealth of nearby towns, a freshman college student who is Black asked Buckley, “What’s wrong with me?”
“We assured her there was nothing wrong with her. There is something wrong with the world,” said Buckley, who tried to help his young parishioner understand that the fault did not rest with who she was but with external factors and decisions made by others.
Anticipating the need not only for material supplies but spiritual relief, award-winning gospel artist John P. Kee volunteered to perform a benefit concert in Jackson.
A friend of Kee’s in Jackson connected him to Biard, and he immediately knew she was someone who could help him set up the concert but also become an ongoing partner.
“I wanted to come in and partner with such a ministry where we could actually connect, and when I’m gone I’ll stay in touch, and I’ll be family,” Kee said.
Fixing Jackson’s pipes, water plant and other infrastructure needs requires resources that exceed what local churches can provide. Yet the lightning-quick response of faith leaders and their communities when the hour of need emerged provides evidence that help will be there in a crisis.
The show of unity by churches in Jackson may even be a sign of greater changes to come.
According to Biard, “I believe that this may be not just the initiation of a fresh start for Jackson, I believe it’s going to be a comprehensive fresh start … I believe that the Lord is getting ready to do something for Mississippi as a whole.”
To support local efforts to address the water crisis in Jackson, donate below.
(Jemar Tisby, PhD, is a historian, author and speaker. He wrote “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism,” and he frequently writes about race, religion and politics in his newsletter, “Footnotes.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(RNS) — The death of Bob Moses on Sunday (July 25) at age 86 should make anyone who dares meddle with Americans’ voting rights in this country pause. The life of the great educator and civil rights leader in Mississippi during the turbulent and violent 1960s reminds us that there may be no more noble cause and that it attracts powerful champions.
I met the 29-year-old Moses at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in February 1964, when I was a young rabbi serving Congregation B’Nai Jehudah in Kansas City, Missouri. Like millions of Americans, I had been deeply moved months before by the huge civil rights rally that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the Lincoln Memorial.
In February 1964, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City sent me to Hattiesburg as its official representative to participate in the interreligious Ministers’ Project, which included rabbis, Presbyterian pastors and Episcopal priests from all over the country. I spent a week in Mississippi supporting the town’s African Americans, who were cynically forced to take a detailed and lengthy test that only a constitutional scholar could pass, designed to systematically deprive them of their vote.
When the Hattiesburg voting rights drive began in January, only 12 out of 7,000 eligible Black voters were registered. By early April, the number had climbed to nearly 800.
The drive, based upon non-violent direct action, consisted of marching each morning for several hours with other clergy in front of the Forrest County Courthouse demanding an end to voter suppression. In the afternoons, we went from house to house, instructing Black residents on how to register despite the onerous restrictions that were placed on them. In the evenings, the rabbis and Christian clergy attended various Black churches where we heard stirring music, powerful sermons and again we offered assistance in voter registration.
On one of those nights, at Morning Star Baptist, Bob Moses got up to speak. A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he had earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University, but, stirred by the civil rights movement, he had left his safe teaching position at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York City, and traveled to Mississippi in 1960.
Moses soon became a prominent figure as the field secretary in the newly established voter registration group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, popularly known as “Snick.”
By February of 1964, he had become a legend. He had been shot at as he rode in a car. He had been knifed in the head by a violent segregationist, and, because no white doctor would treat his wound, Moses had to be driven around until a Black physician was finally located and sewed nine stitches in his head.
Moses delivered a powerful, eloquent address that night at Morning Star. He had a professorial mien and communicated in a soft voice but spoke in powerful cadences about the fundamental American right to vote. Fifty-seven years later, the memory of Moses’ magnificent oration has the power to stir me.
The next year, Moses organized the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project that attracted many young volunteers, including two young Jewish men from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who heeded Moses’ call to assist in registering Black voters.
That summer, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, along with James Chaney, a young Black civil rights worker. Their killers were only brought to justice many years later.
Moses believed that a quality education was another necessity if we were to achieve a just and equitable society. In the 1980s, Moses organized “The Algebra Project,” whose goal was to help young Black students acquire skill in mathematics, a subject Moses discovered was greatly lacking for many African-American students.
When I returned to Kansas City, I wrote an article that appeared in the “Jewish Frontier,” a national magazine, about my Mississippi experiences. I concluded the piece with two predictions: There would be violence in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, and “total integration” would come to the United States within 10 years.
I was tragically correct about the potential for violence and much too optimistic about the end of racism in the United States. In those days, listening to men like Moses, it was possible to believe it.
May his memory and legacy always be an inspiration and a challenge for all Americans.
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” He can be reached atjamesrudin.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
In the 1960s, health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse and much of it was segregated. Some hospitals were dedicated to Black patients, but they often struggled to stay afloat. At the height of the civil rights movement, young Black doctors launched a movement of their own to address the care disparity.
“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated,” said Dr. Robert Smith. “The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”
In 1967, Smith helped start Delta Health Center, the country’s first rural community health center. They put the clinic in Mound Bayou, a small town in the heart of the Delta, in northwestern Mississippi. The center became a national model and is now one of nearly 1,400 such clinics across the country. These clinics, called federally qualified health centers, are a key resource in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where about 2 in 5 people live in rural areas. Throughout the U.S., about 1 in 5 people live in rural areas.
The covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing rural health care, such as lack of broadband internet access and limited public transportation. For much of the vaccine rollout, those barriers have made it difficult for providers, like community health centers, to get shots into the arms of their patients.
“I just assumed that [the vaccine] would flow like water, but we really had to pry open the door to get access to it,” said Smith, who still practices family medicine in Mississippi.
Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers.
The once-thriving downtown was home to some of the first Black-owned businesses in the state. Today the town is dotted with shuttered or rundown banks, hotels and gas stations.
Mitch Williams grew up on a Mound Bayou farm in the 1930s and ’40s and spent long days working the soil.
“If you would cut yourself, they wouldn’t put no sutures in, no stitches in it. You wrapped it up and kept going,” Williams said.
When Delta Health Center started operations in 1967, it was explicitly for all residents of all races — and free to those who needed financial help.
Williams, 85, was one of its first patients.
“They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care,” he said.
Residents really needed it. In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing.
At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans.
Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation. Staffers believed these factors affected health outcomes, too.
Williams, who later worked for Delta Health, said he’s not sure where the community would be today if the center didn’t exist.
“It’s frightening to think of it,” he said.
Half a century later, the Delta Health Center continues to provide accessible and affordable care in and around Mound Bayou.
Black Southerners still face barriers to health. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Black residents accounted for nearly half of covid deaths in Alabama and over 70% in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Public health data from last month shows that Black residents of those states have consistently been more likely to die of covid than residents of other races.
“We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with covid,” said Nadia Bethley, a clinical psychologist at the center. “It’s been tough.”
Delta Health Center has grown over the decades, from a few trailers in Mound Bayou to a chain of 18 clinics across five counties. It’s managed to vaccinate over 5,500 people against covid. The majority have been Black.
“We don’t have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It’s the people who work here,” Bethley said.
The Mississippi State Department of Health said it has prioritized health centers since the beginning of the rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman said the center was receiving only a couple of hundred doses a week in January and February. The supply became more consistent around early March, center officials said.
“Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning,” Fairman said. Fairman said his center saw success with vaccinations because of its long-standing relationships with the local communities.
“Use the infrastructure that’s already in place, that has community trust,” said Fairman.
That was the entire point of the health center movement in the first place, said Smith. He said states that were slow to use health centers in the vaccine rollout made a mistake that has made it difficult to get a handle on covid in the most vulnerable communities.
Smith called the slow dispersal of vaccines to rural health centers “an example of systemic racism that continues.”
A spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department said it is “committed to providing vaccines to rural areas but, given the rurality of Mississippi, it is a real challenge.”
Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the low dose allocation to rural health clinics and community health centers early on is “going to cost lives.”
“With hospitalizations and mortality much higher in rural communities, these states need to focus on the hot spots, which in many cases are these small towns,” Morgan said of the vaccine efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.
A report from KFF found that people of color made up the majority of people vaccinated at community health centers and that the centers seem to be vaccinating people at rates similar to or higher than their share of the population. (The KHN newsroom, which collaborated to produce this story, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
The report added that “ramping up health centers’ involvement in vaccination efforts at the federal, state and local levels” could be a meaningful step in “advancing equity on a larger scale.”
Equal access to care in rural communities is necessary to reach the most vulnerable populations and is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the 1960s, according to Smith.
“When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans,” Smith said.
This story is from a partnership that includes NPR, KHN and the three stations that make up the Gulf States Newsroom: Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama; and WWNO in New Orleans.
A lawsuit over a Mississippi election law, if successful, will change the way that state elects its governor.
Four African Americans filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in May 2019, charging that the way their state elects its statewide officials violates the Voting Rights Act, the 14th Amendment and the principle of “one-person, one-vote.”
To win election, a candidate for governor of Mississippi has to win an outright majority of the popular vote – and win a majority of the state’s 122 House districts.
Today, Mississippi is one of only two states where the winner of the popular vote does not automatically become governor. Vermont is the other. In the 19th century, however, many states had such laws.
The damage that these laws did to democratic legitimacy and political stability in the 1870s, ‘80s and ’90s was not conjecture. These laws were intended to entrench the rule of the party in power.
This November, Mississippi is preparing for its first close gubernatorial election since 1999. The election law that is the focus of the lawsuit could decide who wins. Its origins and the track record of similar laws in more competitive states bear investigation.
They included the majority vote and state House district provision in the constitution as a backstop to preserve white control of Mississippi. However, voter suppression and a racially polarized electorate have produced few competitive elections in Mississippi, ensuring that the backstop has rarely been necessary.
In the 19th century, many states with similar election laws had much more competitive elections. The bad results these laws produced in close contests demonstrate the worst-case possibilities of Mississippi’s system.
The crowbar governor
These anti-majoritarian laws in governors’ races caused what legal scholar Edward B. Foley termed “a veritable epidemic” of crises during the Gilded Age.
In West Virginia (1888), Rhode Island (1893) and Tennessee (1894), partisan legislatures overruled the voters to install governors in office who had failed to win the most votes.
The 1890 drama in Connecticut provides the worst example of these laws in action.
Democratic candidates running for governor won the most votes in every Connecticut election during the 1880s. But with multiple parties running, they never captured a majority. The legislature, gerrymandered to favor the Republicans, installed their candidates in office 4 out of 5 times, even though they never even won a plurality.
In 1890, the Connecticut legislature was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. That year’s gubernatorial election was thrown to the legislature. Deadlock ensued. In a three-way race, where the Democrat had won nearly 4,000 more votes than his Republican opponent, Republicans in the state Senate refused to seat him.
Though the Democrats held the moral high ground, the Republicans had the election law on their side. With the stalemate, the sitting Republican governor, Morgan G. Bulkeley, who had not even run for re-election, simply stayed in office for two more years.
While Bulkeley’s supporters commended him for stepping in to “hold the fort,” his unelected tenure provoked a crisis of legitimacy that ground state government to a halt.
When the legislature refused to appropriate funds for the state budget, Bulkeley borrowed $300,000 ($8.3 million today) from his family’s company – Aetna Life Insurance – to pay for state operations. Neighboring states refused to acknowledge the legality of arrest warrants he issued. At one point, the Democrats changed the locks on the governor’s office and Bulkeley popped them off with a crowbar.
But Bulkeley’s methods had damaged the Republican Party’s reputation. In the regularly scheduled 1892 election, the Democrat who had won the most votes in 1890, Luzon B. Morris, won an outright majority and became governor.
The hero of Gettysburg
In Maine in 1879, a similar election law came close to provoking a civil war.
The sitting Democratic governor, Alonzo Garcelon, placed a distant third in the election, behind the Republican and Greenback candidates. Because no one won an outright majority, the new legislature, which Republicans expected to control, would decide the winner.
As the incumbent, however, Garcelon had power over certifying the legislative election results. Using every trick in the book, Garcelon’s cronies overturned enough election results to give his allies control of the new legislature.
The state’s supreme court ruled his actions illegal, but Garcelon ignored them and seated his illegitimate legislature, hoping they would vote to re-elect him governor.
Bands of armed Mainers from both sides of the dispute began gathering in the capital. Only the intervention of Civil War hero and former Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain averted bloodshed. Chamberlain, head of the state’s militia, refused to take sides. When a group of Garcelon’s supporters pushed into Chamberlain’s office, he opened his shirt and dared them to do what the rebels had failed to at Gettysburg.
The supreme court again ruled that the Republicans had the right to organize the legislature and appoint the governor. For two more weeks Garcelon refused to back down, but when Chamberlain publicly accepted the court’s decision and sided with the Republicans, the crisis came to an end.
If the civil rights lawsuit against the gubernatorial election process succeeds, it will mark a repudiation of Mississippi’s legacy of racial disfranchisement.
If it does not succeed, then Mississippi’s legislature and governor might want to consider the examples of Connecticut in 1890 and Maine in 1879.
Laws that place anti-democratic restrictions on the popular vote have a bad track record in competitive elections. At best they add unnecessary complexity and instability to what should be a simple system.
At worst they undermine the principle of popular rule, damage voters’ faith in democracy and provoke crises of legitimacy.