The recent events in Egypt have kept me thinking about our history of non-violent protest in the United States. Between the observance of Martin Luther King day in January and Black History month, I’ve tried to make a formal study of the speech that King delivered in Washington, D.C. in August, 1963. You can read the text of the speech or watch it online. I found that my appreciation grew the more I studied the speech and the events leading up to it. In particular, I’ve come to appreciate how important it was for King to emphasize “the fierce urgency of now”, because at that time we still lived under a regime of racial segregation. We see August, 1963 as a watershed moment for civil rights in America. It is hard for us to now imagine how deeply our country was divided by racial hatred and ignorance. King and the others in the SCLC displayed enormous personal courage by their actions — it could not have been an easy thing to stand in the street as mounted policemen rode towards you, swinging lengths of rubber hose wrapped with barbed wire — but it is also important to remember that others before them also exemplified moral courage, sometime at great personal cost. This post is about one of those men.In 1955, Mose Wright was 64 years old. He lived as a sharecropper in Money, Mississippi with his wife Elizabeth. Some members of his family had migrated north to Chicago and Detroit, but he stayed in the delta. In August of 1955 his niece, Mamie Till Bradley, sent her 14 year-old son south from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. The boy’s name was Emmett Till. He stayed with his uncle and aunt and his cousins and worked the cotton fields around their home. On day after work a group of the teenagers stopped off at store to buy some pop and gum as they were walking home. The store was owned by a white man and his wife, but the woman was alone in the store that day. Emmett apparently made the mistake of whistling at her. Three days later, her husband and his half-brother came to the home of Mose Wright between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. They demanded to see “the boy that done the talkin'” and threatened to kill Mose if he did not let them into his home. They kidnapped Emmett from his bed and his body was found in the river a few days later, shot through the head and severely beaten.
As the case moved towards trial, Elizabeth Wright begged her husband not to testify, and to go into hiding because she feared for his life, but he was determined to do what he thought was right. When the trial got underway, the jury which was selected consisted of 12 white men — no women, no black people. The courtroom itself was a circus, as the judge insisted on segregating the courtroom and allowed black people to sit only in the balcony. That included Emmett’s mother who had come down from Chicago for the trial, and congressman Charles Diggs from Michigan. (Sheriff Strider remarked incredulously “There’s some nigger out there claims to be a congressman.”)