Lessons From #Selma50: #4: Mississippi STILL Burning #TCUCRBT

Frederick Jermaine Carter, 26, was found hanging from a tree in an upscale , mostly white subdivision in Greenwood, Mississippi. Authorities originally ruled it a suicide. However, local residents know the truth. Jermaine Carter was the victim of a good ole fashioned lynching. According to U.S.A. Today, Carter was last seen with his step-father in Sunflower County Mississippi. He had a history of wandering off resulting from a mental illness. Tragically, he was the victim of a heinous hate crime because of his decision to wander into an white suburban neighborhood. He was a victim of what many in Mississippi have known and experience all too well, the phenomenon of “not knowing your place.” Sadly, this case of a modern day lynching that occurred in December of 2010 never received any national recognition and is virtually unknown to all besides the residents of Greenwood and nearby areas. Make no mistakes about this incident though, many residents still vividly remember this incident and are certain that this was not a suicide but yet another terror attack by white supremacy that is still deeply entrenched in much of the country today.


I first learned of this story from a female receptionist from the Hampton hotel that I stayed in while in Greenwood. I went to write a reflection on my experiences in Greenwood and my visit to various historical sites in the area such as the Fannie Lou Hamer burial site, the remains of the store in which Emmett Till’s infamous encounter with Carolyn Bryant occurred, and the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center. As we talked I learned more about Mississippi in a two hour conversation than I did from any of the historical sites I had visited. My conversation with this woman shaped my next lesson I learned from visiting Selma and other civil rights historical sites. The history of places like Greenwood, Mississippi is often left solely in a historical context. However, the truth is that many of the issues that plagued these areas are still alive and well over 50 years later. In essence, as the receptionist told me “not much has changed in the state of Mississippi,” at least as far as the everyday living conditions of the citizens are concerned.


Perhaps it is no coincidence that Frederick Jermaine Carter was lynched a mere ten minutes away from where Emmett Till was murdered in the not too distant past. On August 28th, 1955 the fourteen year old Till was taken away from his great-uncle’s barn house. At which point he was beaten, his eyes were gouged out, shot in the head, and his body was disposed in the Tallahatchie River with a 70 pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. What was the crime that Till committed? Secondarily, it was speaking/ whistling at the married 21 year- old white woman Carolyn Bryant. Primarily, it was the violation of the unwritten law in Mississippi in which white power reigned supreme. Much like Frederick Jermaine Carter, Till had ” stepped out of place,” and was made into an example to anyone who dare challenge the rule of law. Lynchings, however, are not the  only parallel between what we know as a historical view of the reign of white supremacy and its current state.


Voter disenfranchisement is just as big an issue as it has ever been. It is no secret that although Mississippi had a larger African American population in various spots throughout the state, many did not have any control over their political circumstances during much of the 20th century. In fact it was only at the expense of much bloodshed that voting equality came to the state. This process did not happen overnight rather it was a  long and gradual process. Pivotal in the development of these rights were the establishment of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), The Freedom Summer, the MFDP (Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party), and the  notorious death of three civil rights workers in 1964 (of which the 1988 film Mississippi Burning is based on). Today while there is an absence of blatant terror tactics, other more formal, legal methods have been put in place to disenfranchise African American voters. The private prison industry has played a major role in this endeavor. As I found out, Mississippi is home to several private prison imported from other states including California. Not only does the state import the prisons but it also imports the prisoners from those states as well. These private prisons are not usually located in the city but outside of suburban areas. This allows the total population of  the prisons to count towards the overall population of the suburban areas. With the inflated population growth suburban areas are afford more representation in local politics. So although the prisoners do not get to participate in the political process they are used as political tools to enhance the political power of the elites who already dominate political systems. The vote of African Americans becomes minimized in favor of those who live in suburban areas. Thus in many instances even if African Americans constitute a larger portion of the population this is not reflected in the political representation in various areas.


Beyond voting disenfranchisement, the historical narrative that dominated the perception of Mississippi still exists today in other aspects as well. Whether it be in education, public accommodations, employment opportunities, or public housing. Walking through cities such as Greenwood, it is immediately apparent which part of the town a person is in. When one is in an impoverished neighborhood with dilapidated houses and very few businesses one can be sure they are in a predominantly African American neighborhood. However, when one crosses the railroad tracks the stark contrast is unmistakable. The predominantly white neighborhoods are filled with plenty of houses rich in history and texture that can  be marveled at. This did not happen by accident. The receptionist that I conversed with in a Greenwood hotel gave me an anecdote of housing discrimination that she had personally experienced. She and her husband tired of their lot in Greenwood attempted to purchase a living space in a different part of the town. For a small living space in the white part of town the realtors would not budge on their offer of 950 dollars a month. However, the woman alongside her husband decided to encourage one of their white friends to also attempt to purchase the same space. Their friends were offered the exact same space for 400 dollars. According to the receptionist this practice was not uncommon for the area and many of the  African American residents had given up on trying to move to other parts of the  town.


These stories help to illuminate the dangers that arise when we only consider the historical context of places like Greenwood, Mississippi. We forget about the ongoing struggle that continues in these places today. We forget about understanding the changes that are necessary to affect the day to day lives of the individuals that still live in these place. We become deceived into believing that white supremacy has all but vanquished in society. Voting disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, educational disparities, and lynching are not just historical artifacts of a distant past. They constantly shape the realities of many who deal with systemic inequality in the present context. If one needs furthers proof of this look no further than a recent news story from the LA Times. On March 19, 2015 (yesterday), the body of 54 year old Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree in Claiborne County, Mississippi. It has been reported that Byrd, an African American male was found with his hands tied as he had seemingly tried to escape the noose. At this stage authorities have yet to rule whether this death was a homicide or suicide. However, much like the residents of Greenwood in the case of Frederick James Carter there are serious doubts that this was a suicide. Something that has thought to have been long since eradicated from our society in all probability has reared its ugly head again, modern day lynchings. The point here is clear. Unless we recognize that white supremacy is not a socio-historical artifact relegated to the past,  these incidents will continue to occur.

 Photo Description: “Emmett Till Historical Marker. Sumner, MS. Green sign, gold text, square shape, describing the events of Emmett Till’s lynching.. Found on Flickr. Jimmy Emerson 3/22/2008. 

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