Which brings us to what is perhaps the heart, or rump, of this book: The legislative fight over the 1957 civil rights bill. The last civil rights law passed by Congress was in 1875, and within five years it had been wiped off the books. There had been dozens of efforts to pass another civil rights law, but only a handful had even reached the Senate floor and there they had been crushed, as expected, by Rule 22. That rule permitted filibusters to live forever unless cut short by a vote of two-thirds of the members.When a civil rights bill was at issue, that was an impossible percentage to reach because, aside from the solid South, there were senators in other states who hesitated to disturb the tradition of unlimited debate. But by the 1950s violent things were happening in the nation that made the passage of a civil rights bill seem imperatively needed as a pacifier. In the South, segregation and gutter-level abuse made life for most blacks about the same as it had been for their greatgrandparents.They were getting mad as hell, and some weren’t going to take it anymore. That was made obvious enough for even crackers to see when, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person and was thrown off the bus. The resulting yearlong Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott showed just how powerful “black power” could be. And it introduced the nation to a young Montgomery preacher by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. And southern blacks were fed up with their children’s lousy schooling. The first sign of things to come was in Mansfield, about 17 miles southeast of Fort Worth. The school district was made up of 688 white and 58 black students. The latter were bussed into Fort Worth. With the U.S. Circuit of Appeals’ approval, three black boys announced their intent to enter the Mansfield school in 1956. For three days before school opened, a mob controlled the town. Free knives were offered white students who promised to use them. An assistant district attorney was hit, kicked, and cursed. Television cameras were broken. The blacks’ attorney pleaded with Governor Shivers for help. He refused to send state troops to protect what he called “NAACP agitators,” but he did send Texas Rangers with specific instructions to protect the white people of the town. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus later indicated that Mansfield was the inspiration for the way he handled the 1957 integration crisis at the Little Rock high school, where, as the world watched in awe, President Eisenhower sent a thousand paratroopers with fixed bayonets to protect nine black students. The rest of the nation was, with the added assistance of television,.becoming increasingly aware of the Deep South’s pure savagery. In 1955, something happened that, historically speaking, was not at all unusualthousands of similar murders had been committed, unpunished, over the generations. But this time television and other parts of the press brought the horror right into the front room of the world. A 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till, visiting his mother’s hometown on the Mississippi delta made what the locals considered a few sassy remarks to a white clerka woman. Word got around of this unforgivable act, and that night two white men, armed with .45 automatic pistols, went to the home of the boy’s uncle and aunt and took him away to a nearby shed, where they beat him on the head so hard that one of his eyeballs dangled from its socket. Then they forced him to carry a 70-pound exhaust fan down to the Tallahatchie River, where many other black lives had been ended. They beat him some more, crushed his skull, shot him in the face, tied the fan around his neck and tossed him into the river. Three days later his body, so bloated the fan couldn’t keep it down, bobbed to the surface. A policeman said it was the most badly beaten face he had ever seen. The boy could be identified only by an initialed ring on one of his fingers. That might have been the end of the event. Such events in the South usually had a swift, virtually unnoticed ending. But this time things were different. Emmett’s Mother refused to let him be buried in the South. She insisted that his body be sent back to Chicago, and she ordered that the casket be left open for three days. “The church in Chicago’s great South Side black ghetto in which the casket lay held seventeen hundred people but it wasn’t enough. Thousands upon thousands of black men and women lined up in the street outside and filed past it. Men’s faces changed as they saw what was inside, women fainted…” Then the black magazine, Jet, with a national circulation, used a photograph of the boy’s face. Roy Wilkens of the NAACP spoke to a Harlem rally about Mississippi’s “jungle fury” and 10,000 people jammed the street to hear him. Other rallies were held in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Tallahatchie County, where Emmett was murdered, wasn’t perturbed. Dozens of the nation’s best reporters were there for the trial, but by southern standards, the trial was pretty ordinary. The all-white jury \(one good reason there were no blacks on the jury was that to be a juror you had to be a registered voter, and though 63 percent of the county’s residents were black, none only an hour and seven minutes before coming back to declare the murderers innocent. One juror said they wouldn’t have taken so long, “if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.” These tremors of a racial earthquake on the way showed whites outside the Deep South just how lawless a lot of folks in the region could be, Chamber of Commerce sorts as well as rednecks. And it showed the millions of blacks who had never lived in the Southan increasingly potent voting group in continued on page 36 8/2/02 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19
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