Civil rights landmark eyed for restoration

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 18, 2008

JACKSON (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.

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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.