Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Prince and the Cotton Gin Fan

By Lindell Singleton
Email the author at

"If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly."

-Mamie Till

“I hated the white people who did it, but I hated the Negroes even more for not fighting back.

I hated them all.”- Former Resident of Money, Mississippi

"It seems like nothin' good ever happens up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Jo Mcallister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." -Bobbie Gentry

My second son, Ryan, just signed a college scholarship to play football in Mississippi. We went over to Jackson to sign his National Letter of Intent. It’s ironic that my son is going to live in Mississippi.

My Dad—who pastored a Pentecostal church for 27 years-- said that if Christ returned to Earth and was in Mississippi he just have to ‘take his chances with salvation because he would never again set foot in the Magnolia State.’ Maybe it had something to do with Emmett Louis Till.

A little history lesson: Mr. Till, a fourteen year old Chicagoan, was visiting Money, Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

As the story goes, on a dare from one of his friends, he said “hey baby” or whistled at a girl—a white girl—as he was leaving Bryant’s Grocery Store and Meat Market.

The angered and offended young woman told her family—that tragic decision set actions in motion that ended Mr. Till’s young life. On the night of August 28, 1955, good ol’ boys from the town dragged Mr.Till from his home, beat him until he was unrecognizable, shot him in the head with a .45 caliber weapon, affixed a 75-pound cotton gin fan to his neck, and hurled his body from a bridge into the swift current of the Tallahatchee River. (Yes, Billie Jo McAllister’s bridge!) His body was found three days later.

His funeral on 6 September 1955,drew attention from as far away as France.

Every black man older than 40 knows the name, Emmett Till. I learned of Mr. Till’s plight long before the names Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, and Fredrick Douglass entered my consciousness.

What kind of people could do this to a young boy? What kind of place would allow this to happen—and then, acquit the killers after just 67 minutes of deliberation--offering righteous indignation that were even be charged. He was just a nigga’, after all.

No wonder my Dad refused to return to Mississippi. He didn’t even want his remains buried there. But Malcolm X’s family house was burned down in Omaha, Nebraska…far North of the Mason-Dixon line.

It leaves me wondering: Was it the place or the people?

Sarajevo, at one time, was a cultural and artistic flashpoint of Europe. It was full of cafes, bookshops, hard-working people and progressive thought. The Olympics, for god’s sake, were in Sarajevo. Then, the pot of race, religion, and ethnicity started to boil…the killing started. What is Sarajevo today? How is it a better place? Did people make the place evil, or did the place make the people do evil things. I just wonder.

Mississippi is beautiful. As my son and I walked the tree-lined campus, and soaked up the beautiful Mississippi evenings, I had a jarring flashback to Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner. What a confluence of evil, in a place that seems so full of old world charm…do the people bring the evil, or is there something in the air, water or soil that causes good people to go bad.

Things were going nicely for Adam and Eve until they ate from the tree.How does this descent into evil occur?

Do you just don’t wake up one morning and say to your friend,“Ok, the next colored teenager that talks to any girl gets a goddamn cotton gin fan wrapped around his black neck and tossed in the Tallahatchee river, got it?”

Long ago, I gave up believing that people were fundamentally good. One can choose to be a good individual, but the drag of our selfish, self-centered, ‘me-first approach to the world’ ultimately prevails. What other explanation exists for beating a young boy until he was barely recognizable, then tying a cotton gin fan around his neck?

There is a park in South L.A. where I used to play basketball. Back then it was called, Manchester Park. I had just finished one of my 500-shot routines, trying to pattern my game after Oscar Robertsons’. As I reached the North end of the park, three guys stopped me.

They were from a gang called the “Park Boys,” a collective that would ultimately fold into the Crips. They beat me until the blood ran from my nose. And then, they stopped. I was on my knees, trying to get up, and and old lady pushing a grocery cart from ABC market stopped and looked at me. She didn’t say anything, but shook her head and kept going. I stumbled to my feet and touched my cheekbone as it was starting to bruise and swell. I thought: “Why are they doing this to me?”

Did Emmitt Till ever ask that question while he was getting beat? I wish there were some way—like in the film Minority Report—that I could watch this crime take place… through some sort of hidden time machine/security camera device. What were Emmitt’s final words?

Did he plead with this crew of murderering savages to spare his life? Why, at some point, didn’t one of the murderers say, “Enough, the boy has learned his lesson.” Surely, talking to a white girl doesn’t mandate being thrown in the river. Was there no decency in any of these men? Were they bereft of all humanity and goodness? But maybe there was just something in the air that day. Or, maybe there is something in the water and soil of Money, Mississippi:

Like Emmitt Till’s blood, for starters.

The great Ossie Davis called Malcolm X a black prince…a shining black prince. When I look into his soft, reflective eyes of Emmitt Till I am reminded that he, too, was a black prince. One whose life ended because of reasons that are, without question, inexplicable...

I am forever saddened at the death of this boy. Think of the unfullfilled dreams that sank to bottom of the river with his broken body.

The world is an evil place. We delude ourselves when we think it isn’t. What goodness have you brought to the world today that will balance this oppressing storm of evil?