Emmett Till, JFK, and the Radical Right

Emmett Till, JFK, and the Radical Right

Emmett Till’s case is getting much-overdue attention lately. Till became one of the first martyrs in America’s 1950s-era Civil Rights movement when he was killed by Radical Right-wing extremists for flirting with a white girl.

Till was one of dozens. For twenty years starting in the 1950s, federally mandated integration brought violence against both blacks and whites. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, seven Americans died in 1963 at the hands of extremists who opposed racial integration.

We add 3 more victims to the SPLC list.

John F Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Dallas police officer J D Tippet died in the same terror of angry southern whites that bombed four schoolgirls in Birmingham a month earlier. Was desegregation the reason JFK was killed? Not entirely. Not by itself. The outrage of southern whites against forced integration with blacks found its most popular venue in the form of “White Citizens Councils,” which in turn brought together the most violently extreme of Kennedy’s enemies.

My colleague Paul Trejo at the University of Texas finds a precursor to the JFK assassination in the establishment of White Citizens Councils (WCC) on Black Monday, 1954. Most of us know Black Monday as a stock market crash, but in the American South, Black Monday is when Earl Warren handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, famously deciding separate is NOT equal in terms of schools. Paul says,

“The immediate reaction to Black Monday… was the sudden appearance of the White Citizens’ Council (WCC) in Mississippi, throughout the South and in the North. Robert B. Patterson, football star and WW2 paratrooper of Indianola, Mississippi established the first WCC in July 1954. Patterson published that the NAACP was “the enemy” and he vowed to doggedly fight anybody at all who supported the NAACP in any way.

“In addition to the WCC, State Sovereignty and States’ Rights organizations sprang up in the South with the same message – it is tyranny for the Federal government to dictate that local schools should be racially integrated. That is a decision that must only be made at the level of State government. Yet as WCC played out, the tough talk of Brady’s Black Monday would not produce private schools, boycotts or even one successful politician.

“Although some Southern States had voted to abolish public schools and even passed legislation to establish private schools, these never materialized at the State level. States like Virginia and Louisiana did pass laws establishing 100% segregation, as well as outlawing the NAACP. These laws, too, obtained little traction, although they temporarily stymied the growth of the NAACP in those communities.

“In 1955, ten thousand WCC members rallied to listen to Senator James O. Eastland speak of States’ Rights and the benefits of segregation. Yet in Mississippi, on 7 May 1955, Reverend George E. Lee, a Black clergyman, was killed for advising Blacks to vote. On 28 Aug 1955, Emmett Till, a Black youth of 14 was killed for whistling at a white woman. Two men were tried, confessed their guilt and were acquitted.”

We hope Emmett Till finds justice in 2018, sixty-three years after his death. We think embracing Emmett Till’s case is essential in finally understanding and pinpointing JFK’s murderers.