Day 4: Civil Rights Mound Bayou, Juke Joints, & The Emmett Till Story

Thursday included a driving tour aboard the traveling classroom followed by an emotional afternoon dedicated to the story of Emmett Till.

The morning began with a trip to Mound Bayou, a historic all-black settlement not far from Cleveland. Founded by ex-slaves in 1887, the town strove to embody the utopian ideals of Robert Owens by developing self-reliance and a high standard of living. Without racial divisions, residents could pursue their full potential relatively uninhibited by the tension that dominated the rest of Mississippi. At its peak, Mound Bayou was a thriving hub of black culture and business.

Participants stopped at the Taborian Hospital. In keeping with the principles of Mound Bayou, all of its employees were black, and the first chief surgeon, T.R.M. Howard, was a civil rights leader who mentored Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer.

Howard was the focus of the next stop on the tour: a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker devoted to his life.

The traveling classroom then arrived at Po Monkey’s, a rural juke joint on the edge of a cotton field. For decades, locals and tourists alike flocked to the juke every Thursday for blues music and good company. Po Monkey’s has been closed since Po Monkey himself, Mr. Willie Seaberry, tragically passed away last July.

After a quick break, participants heard from Charles McLaurin, a Mississippi native who played an active role in the civil rights movement. A "foot soldier for freedom," McLaurin joined SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) after attending an inspirational speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His role in SNCC involved coordinating voter registration drives - a dangerous task that landed him in jail multiple times. McLaurin went on to serve as Fanny Lou Hamer's campaign manager and as director of the Freedom Summer Project in Sunflower County. Decades later, he continues to share his story.

In the afternoon, the group boarded the traveling classroom again -- this time heading to the Sumner Courthouse, where Emmett Till's murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury. On the way, they watched The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, which documents the crime and its impact on the civil rights movement.

The film's director, Keith Beauchamp, served on a panel that also included Emmett's cousin, Reverend Parker Wheeler. Wheeler provided a harrowing firsthand account of the circumstances surrounding the murder. The panel also discussed Emmett's legacy and the community's path toward racial reconciliation.

After each panel member shared his or her perspective, the floor opened to the audience. Speakers ranged from Emmett's Mississippi relatives, who rarely speak publicly, to the workshop participants, who hail from across the US. Education was an especially hot topic; teachers and community members alike debated how best to preserve Emmett's legacy while relating it to ongoing civil rights struggles.

Next came a stop at the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora. The group encountered various scenes depicting the case, from Bryant's Grocery at one end to the funeral home at the other. These visual representations of Wheeler's story added to the emotional weight of the evening.

Watch workshop participants Anita Anderson-Cooper and Bobby Harley share their thoughts on the case below:

Before leaving Glendora, the group met with Mayor Johnny B. Thomas, who reiterated the power of Emmett's legacy in the community's spirit.

After several hours devoted to Emmett Till's story, the group traveled to where it all began: Bryant's Grocery, the site of the fatal wolf whistle. Although the building is crumbling, a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker identifies the site.

The opportunity to taste koolickles -- a popular southern snack made, as the name suggests, from kool-aid and pickles -- added a touch of levity to an otherwise somber evening.

The day concluded at Little Zion M.B. Church, home to one of blues legend Robert Johnson's three gravestones.

Inspired by the legacy of blues performers like Johnson, as well as the film Lalee's Kin, Bobby Harley of South Carolina and Ben Bacon of California recorded an original composition, "Lalee's Blues." Listen below:

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