It’s hard to imagine a more beguiling southern town than Natchez, Mississippi. Located high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, it was once the wealthy centre of the cotton trade. Its elegant old homes, leafy streets and handsome public buildings testify to a grand past. The aura of southern gentility, however, masks an ugly history. It was near Natchez in 1966 that members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered an elderly black man, Ben Chester White, in the hope that civil rights leader Martin Luther King jnr would come to town to attend the funeral. The plan was to assassinate King, but he didn’t take the bait.
Three white men were charged with White’s murder but no one was convicted. No surprises there, since they were tried under a state court system that was notoriously sympathetic to white defendants. It wasn’t until 2000 that the FBI realised the Homochitto State Forest, where the murder was committed, was federal government land and therefore subject to federal jurisdiction. In 2003, Ernest Avants one of the original defendants, was sent to prison for his part in the murder and died there the following year, aged 72.
Ben Chester White wasn’t the only black man taken by Klansmen to the Homochitto Forest and never seen alive again. In 1964, two black teenagers were abducted, tortured in the forest, then dumped in a river and left to drown. Again, it wasn’t until 2007 that James Ford Seale was brought to justice and sentenced to life. Like Jones, he died in prison.
It’s hard to reconcile this gruesome legacy with the sweet old southern lady who proudly guided us around one of the magnificent antebellum mansions for which Natchez is renowned (pointing out, among other things, the “very fine grand pianna”). I couldn’t help wondering how much this genteel octogenarian knew in the 1960s about the town’s murderous underbelly, and what her attitude would have been to the Klan killings.
Decades may have passed since the epochal civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, but it’s still virtually impossible to travel in the Deep South without being confronted by the past. From Natchez we headed north to Jackson, scene of an even more notorious race killing: the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 by white supremacist Byron de la Beckwith. Justice was only marginally swifter in this case: after two trials ended in hung juries, de la Beckwith was eventually convicted 30 years later, after the local newspaper agitated for the case to be re-opened. He was sentenced to life and died in 2001.
Jackson, the capital of Mississippi and the state’s biggest city, is a different place these days. Medgar Evers is commemorated in the name of the local airport, and streets and a municipal library are named after him. We stay at a pleasant Best Western motel where most of our fellow guests are black, and I read that Jackson is noted for its annual gay and lesbian festival – compelling evidence the city has undergone a profound cultural change.
From Jackson we head off the beaten track to a rundown Mississippi Delta hamlet called Money, where the muddy, sluggish Tallahatchie River passes under a nondescript concrete bridge. According to musical lore, this is the spot singersongwriter Bobbie Gentry, who came from nearby Greenwood, had in mind when she wrote her famous Ode to Billie Joe, in which Billie Joe throws something (exactly what remains a mystery) off the Tallahatchie Bridge. But we discover that tiny, desolate Money has a much deeper claim to significance.
We pull up outside a derelict two-storey building that a sign reveals was once Bryant’s grocery store. Here, in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till supposedly made a suggestive remark to the young white wife of the store’s owner. Four nights later, her husband and his half-brother abducted the boy, tortured and beat him until he was unrecognisable, then tied him to a heavy piece of machinery from a cotton gin and threw him off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Emmett Till’s death is considered one of the signal events in the history of the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks is said to have had the boy’s murder in mind when, months later, she refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, thereby triggering the famous Montgomery bus boycott.
By chance, we meet a white farmer on the roadside at Money who tells us he knew the barn where Till was tortured, knew the old cotton gin where the killers had obtained the 32kg metal fan they used to weigh down his body, and decades later had even met Carolyn Bryant, the wife whose complaint led to the boy’s murder. “She was still a purty woman,” he tells us. Roy Bryant and his half-brother, JW Milam, were tried for Till’s murder. The all white, all-male jury deliberated for 67 minutes – which included a break for a refreshing drink of soda pop – before acquitting them. Both men died in their sixties without atoning for their crime.
We strike out for Memphis, Tennessee, where we are confronted again by the South’s shameful past. What was once the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was shot dead on a balcony in 1968, is now the National Civil Rights Museum. Room 306, where King spent the last night of his life, has been recreated exactly. A 1959 Dodge and a 1968 Cadillac are permanently parked outside. They are identical to the cars that were there the day James Earl Ray fired the fatal shots from a boarding house across the street.
But as in Jackson, modern Memphis provides an uplifting counterpoint to the oppression and persecution catalogued in the museum. In the rowdy blues bars on Beale St and the stylish cafes that line nearby Peabody Place, blacks and whites share the same spaces with ease. The almost palpable sense of racial separation that still exists in many American cities is conspicuously absent. It’s as if Memphis is determined to overcome the bloody stain on its history.