Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mississippi Madness: The Story of Emmett Till

The Delta

The Mississippi delta is a vast spread of land in the western part of the state that stretches roughly from Memphis, Tennessee, south to Vicksburg. Larger than the states of Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut or New Jersey, the delta represents about one-quarter of the state of Mississippi. Mostly, the land is flat. There is not a mountain or valley in the entire expanse of land between the Mississippi River in the west and the Yazoo River in the east. Cotton is the major crop and the delta produces more of it than any other region in the U.S.

Although there are several towns with a few thousand inhabitants, the Delta has no major cities. It is comprised mostly of a series of very small communities that consist of little more than a few buildings, a gas station that doubles as a grocery store and maybe, if the town is lucky, a barber shop where locals can go and shoot the breeze over some cold pop or a few beers. The largest city would be Greenville, which sits comfortably on the Mississippi River's banks, a world away from the untamed interior of the state. In summer, the climate is hot and sticky and resembles that of a tropical jungle.

The history of race relations in Mississippi is one of the South's most tumultuous. More so than other Southerners, white Mississippians had an irrational fear of sex between blacks and whites. This hysteria, codified in anti-miscegenation laws, as well as through forced segregation at all levels, originated before the civil war. Its principles were passed on through successive generations. In the 1950s, students did not have the most up-to-date texts in their classrooms, but they knew the evils of mixing the races, even in the first grade. Mississippi legislation prohibited anyone from even suggesting "social equality or intermarriage between whites and Negroes." A law passed in 1892 carried a $500 penalty and ten years in prison for any resident of Mississippi who would dare to have sexual intercourse with a member of another race.

Mississippi was hardly alone in its antipathy. South Carolina Governor, and later U.S. Senator, Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman once said in a campaign speech that "the one crime that warrants lynching; and Governor as I am, I would lead a mob to lynch the Negro who ravishes a white woman." Tillman was just one of a long line of state governors who were openly hostile, even hateful, of blacks. Mississippi Governor James K. Varddaman once told an audience, "If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched, it will be done to maintain white supremacy."

Ben Pitchfork Tillman from book cover
Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman from
book cover

Although it would be factually incorrect to say that blacks were lynched everywhere in Mississippi (they were not), statistics show that the delta region had the highest number of lynchings during the period 1880-1930 and therefore, the highest in the nation. Ominously, Tallahatchie and Leflore County were at the top of the list. Some of the many reasons that blacks were lynched by vicious mobs defy belief. They included inflammatory language, loitering, unruly remarks, demanding respect, disorderly conduct, testifying against a white man and trying to vote.

It was into this volatile land, poisoned by decades of racism and paranoia, that a black Chicago teenager was placed for his summer vacation.

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