tv Civil Rights Movement CSPAN November 23, 2018 4:03am-4:57am EST
ride, the year that made america's public enemy number one. and the work that he'll be talking about today is let the people see. to his righting sets christopher schmidt. he's a professor and associate dean for faculty development and the co-director of the institute of the supreme court of the united states at chicago kent college of law. he's also faculty fellow at the american bar foundation and the editor of law and social inquiry. professor schmidt teaches and writes primarily in the areas of constitutional law and legal history. ladies and gentlemen, i ask you to join me in welcoming both our esteemed scholars. thank you. [applause] >> can you hear me?
well, first, thank you very much for the introduction, and thanks to the organizers of this amazing festival. i've never been here before, and i'm not sure why. it's really been wonderful. talking about the till murder, i'm going to lower this just a little, it's hard to know exactly how much people know about it, so i'll start by telling the story and then maybe tell a few things that are a little less obvious that, working on this book for eight years sort of helped alert me to or made me more aware of. it takes a long time to do a book like this, and steve and i were talking about it before, you always think they're going to be -- this one's going to be easy. it's not going to be hard. and then it just kills you. if you know the story at all, forgive me, but let me try a short version. emmitt till was a 14-year-old chicago killed who, one summer
in august of 1955, went down to mississippi, muddy mississippi in the delta, to visit his uncle and if his cousins. he had been there a couple of times, two or three times, actually. now he's 14, and he's going with his uncle who had been up in chicago, moses wright. and he goes down to mississippi and spends time with his cousins, works a little bit at the harvest. it's cotton, it's time for the cotton harvest, cotton-picking time. and then after he's there about a week, he goes to a local cross roads store with his cousins, they drive over in money. and the story is told many, many ways. and that's one thing about the emmett till story is, yes, there are facts that we know, can know, important facts, but there are also things we don't know, and people fill in gaps. sometimes those gaps are -- it's not so much that they're wrong, it's the way we tell the story.
people tell the story for particular meanings, to try to derive meanings from them. i'm not a post-modernist, don't worry, but there are things you can't know. he goes to brian's grocery store in money, mississippi, with request his cousins -- with his cousins. and they go in one by one. there are two young men playing checkers on the porch. and emmett till is in for about a minute or so, buys some bubble gum, and what we know is then he comes out, lingers for a moment watching checkers, and the woman who was in the store, running the store, carolyn bryant, comes out and starts going to her car to get something -- a gun she later says. and on the way, while she's going there, emmett till -- and this is pretty clear, his cousins say this did happen -- whistled at her, a wolf whistle.
his cousins attest to this. and everyone who was not a chicagoan, which is to say everyone else, understood what this meant. emmett and his cousins and their friends run for their car and take off back home. at one point they even think someone is trailing them in a car, and they dive into some, dive into the fields. a few days pass by, and this seems to have passed. no problem. even though there's a foretelling that this is not -- these folks are not going to let this pass, the bryant family. a few days pass, and then on saturday night emmett goes with uncle moses, with his cousins to greenwood, mississippi, for the annual shopping night, entertainment as people do. they come back about midnight, about two in the morning a knock on the door. two men come and kidnap emmett till.
it turns out later that they admit that they kidnapped him, said they let him go, and they are the husband of carolyn bryant, the woman who he whistled at, and the cousin's half-brother, j.w. w. mylam. they both end up in jail, and there is a trial. the trial takes place just a month later, and they are both exonerated. in an hour. a jury finds them not guilty. now, as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement said, they kidnapped, till, of course, i should say, they kidnapped emmett till, and his body turns up three days later beaten, shot and submerged with a gin mill fan, a 75-pound gin mill fan around his neck in the tall hatch chi river. as aaron henry said, black men
and black boys had been found killed for years and years and years, and is it was never a big to-do. he says i never understood why this one became such a big event. well, it was. it was headline news throughout america. and when the trial took place, and especially the result of the trial, it was headline news actually throughout the world. the usia, the united states information agency, had its hands full trying to control this story and spin it. the trial takes place in one hour, the jury of 12 white men find the two defendants not guilty, as i say. this is just an enormous, enormous event. all right. so i told just a very, very brief version of the story. there's so much that's not right in that story, actually. and it matters when you try to piece together exactly what happened. for example, emmett till was, yes, when this happened he did live with his mother on the
south side of chicago, but he had spent most of his life in a town called argo, a town most people have never heard of. arkansas -- argo is at the very, very western edge of chicago. his mother, mamie till bradley, she had come from drew, mississippi if, as an infant, lived in argo, had a home, went to school there. the school was integrated. she graduated very high in her class. sports teams were integrated. it was no racial paradise. far, far from that. but there were, block to block, there were white and black families. predominantly black here, predominantly white there. but if you think about it, why would emmett not be able to quite take seriously jim crow segregation? not take seriously the prerogatives that men like mylam and bryant think they had, that he had insulted his wife? of course in the trial carolyn
bryant does not just say that emmett whistled at her, she says that he grabbed her, that he made threatening gestures and words, that this was an a attempt, borderline, easily interpreted as an attempted rape. so she claimed. till comes from argo, not chicago. he really didn't like chicago very much. every weekend he was back in argo. it's where his friends were. so that way, that's an important detail. there are only two killers. well, there are only two who stood trial. we know now -- we don't know exactly what others did, but we do know that there were several other members especially of the family or friends of the family who were involved, the beating and killing of emmett till took place on the plantation that was run by leslie mylam, the son of j.w.. several other members of the family involved. and also seen in the back of the
truck as they were driving emmett till to his fate and his death, it's unclear two or three african-american men who, as it turned out, worked for j.w. mylam, were very much in his, under his sway. so the story gets more and more complicated. there's an article about this story that's published months afterwards by a man named william bradford hugh, a journalist, and he tells what he says is the truth about the till killing. and the truth about the full killing was that it was done by just the two men. huey actually knew better, he knew there were other killers, ask that the reason they did it, that the reason they did it was that emmett till was this, as he depicts him, this militant, sexually rapacious black man who was in their faces, mylam and
bryant, about how he was just as good as they were. and that's when he insisted that, yeah, he had had white girls and he would again. that's when j.w.mylam shot him. as near as we can tell, that is completely made up. exactly why huey -- where he think it is he got that, it's hard to say. he's one of these journalists who's constantly telling you who's a truth-teller the. he doesn't care who, he's going to tell the truth. he made it up. another thing about in that you always get -- this you always get the impression when you read about in that it was a kangaroo court, it was a completely unfair trial. there's some interesting details that are really important. the judge was a man from sardis, mississippi. and journalists north and south talked about what a fair and dignified and proper trial he
conducted. what evidence he allowed, how he treated the witnesses. for example, he would not allow in court in front of the jury carolyn bryant begins to tell her story about what emmett till did to her, and the jury is ordered out, and he insists that they -- that that not be admitted. because if you think about it, what would that have to do with why the two killed emmett till? they would have to argue that someone was in danger of their life. there's no place in a proper jury trial for an honor killing, which is what was being argued. no, he wouldn't allow that. the trial -- the prosecutor, a man named curtis chatham, also -- some say he was at least in part the character of atticus finch was influenced by chatham. chatham wanted a conviction. again, journalists black and
white, north and south commented on how good a job he did with very, very little time, how clearly -- especially when they described his closing arguments -- how serious he was about this. none of that mattered. it didn't matter a bit, again, because the jury was 12 white men. why were there only 12 white men on a jury in mississippi? because the county, which was two-thirds black, had not a single african-american voter. which does make you think about the importance of voting beyond just the voting itself in an era of voter suppression. so many things, again, about the story, the photo of emmett -- the very, very famous photo. i'm not going to show it to you. that's too hard to look at. the photo of emmett till this his coffin. -- in his coffin. there's a way that's often depicketted. in the new yorker just a couple of years ago, david remnick -- was it something i said? is. [laughter]
>> we're good. are we good? the editor of the new yorker, david remnick, wrote -- as many, many people have before him -- that the famous photo of emmett till in his coffin, that people saw that, and they were converted, that the civil rights movement begins with that photo. well, there's an assumption there, and that is that people white and black saw that photo. it never appeared in the mainstream press. it was not in "look" magazine or "life" magazine or the newspaper. it was in "jet" magazine and the chicago defender and a few other african-american newspapers. african-americans literal literally by the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, saw that photo. and you know that from people who talked about it, representative john lewis, ann moody in her memoir, muhammad ali talk about emmett till, and they talk about it because of that photo.
but white people didn't see that picture in any numbers at all, if at all, until 1987 with eyes on the prize. and then slowly, other documentaries begin to, that photo begins to appear. another just a small piece that i think is interesting from very recent, if you know another recent book on till by timothy tyson about the blood of emmett till, carolyn bryant confesses that she lied. she's not very specific in what she confesses. she says something like that boy didn't deserve what happened to him. she doesn't say anything specific. it was not as widely reported is about two months ago in the jackson clarion ledger, jerry mitchell -- an outstanding reporter for the clarion ledger -- reported that carolyn recanted her recantation. she says, no, no, i never told them that.
and, actually, tyson does not have a recording of her saying. that he has notes but not a recording. there are all these things that mattered that add up to how we think about the till trial. i want to give you one more, and i'll stop. that is, if i have time. i do. one more. the fbi reopened the till case -- opened the till case in 2004, and they investigated really very thoroughly until 2006. they had avoided the case at all costs in 1955 in every way they could. but they were very thorough in 2004 and 2005. and, of course, people -- caroline bryant, is still alive, and her sister-in-law, j.w. mylam's wife is still alive, and they spent a couple hours interviewing both of them each. and they're both really
close-mouthed. carolyn bryant says i don't remember, i don't think about it, and juanita mylam is pretty much the same. carolyn bryant mentions in her talk that, yeah, that night when she was in bryant's grocery store, she was there alone because her husband was out trucking shrimp at the gulf for his brother, j.w., and he had never left her alone in the store before. this was the first time she'd been there. this kidnapping takes place at twilight. she'd never been there before. and juanita mylam is talking about what happened, and she says out of the blue, you know, it never made sense to he, this whole thing of just about being a whistle or a wink. and the fbi, you can almost hear the fbi agents inhale with, you know, what do you mean a whistle or a wink? true?
with is that what happened? juanita mylam was in the store with her kids. she said something else after that that was really interesting. she started talking about how in her life she had been around african-american people and was not afraid of them, she knew some. but carolyn, her sister-in-law, had never been around black folks, she was afraid of them. she said in the trial and to the fbi, i was scared to death. it makes us think about race and racism. hatred, of course, but fear also. we don't talk about fear enough, almost the an access or to have of hatred.
ancestor of hatred. that's, i guess, enough. and maybe we'll have some questions after. thank you. [applause] >> hello. so today i'm going to be talking about my recently-published book titled "the sit-ins, protests and legal change in the civil rights era." i'm going start off my talk just by laying the opening scene of the book. it began as a conversation. four young african-american men in the first year at north carolina agricultural and technical college in a dormitory room discussing their hopes and their frustrations. it was late 1959, and it was early 1960.
and of the many topics they talked about in these bull sessions, the one they kept returning to was the challenge of leading a dignified life in the jim crow south. they talked, and they talked some more, and then in the words of one of the students, we just got tire the of talking about it, and we decided to do something. late in the afternoon of february 1, 1960, the four students entered a store in downtown greensboro. they purchased a few small items and sat down at the lunch counter. i'm sorry, the waitress told them, we don't serve colored in here. like most department stores in the american south, african-american customers were welcomed into all parts of the store but with one exception, they were not allowed to sit at the lunch counter. this is a public place, isn't it, asked one of the students. if it isn't, then why don't you sell membership cards? if you do that, then i'll say this is a private concern. so with we just sat there until the lunch counter closed, and
then we came on back the school. they returned the following morning, this time with reinforcements, 21 in total. they went through the same routine. they sat. the next morning they were back again. the students sat this shifts throughout the day. they talked quietly among themselves. some brought school works. police officers kept watch on the scene as did local newspaper reporters. by tend of the week, an estimated 200 students had taken part in the greensboro sit-ins. the greensboro demonstrations are not the first time african-americans protested discrimination at lunch counters or other eating facilities in this way. but what separated these sit-ins from those that came before was what followed. these protests in greensboro inspired others to sit-in, to march, to pick et, the organize -- picket, to organize, to boycott and in some cases to be abused and beaten. it turned into an inspired assault on racial practice throughout the south. the sit-ins had become a
movement. by the end of february 1960, some 30 cities in seven different states had sit-in protests including our very own nashville. a month later, after two months, 48 cities and 11 states had sit-ins take place. in all, an estimated 50,000 people eventually took part in the sit-in movement of 1960. the number a arrested for their courageous actions would eventually reach into the thousands. so that's the scene that i set up at the beginning of the book, and then the project of the book is to tell a story about why this happened and the significance of what happened. i have two primary goals for the book. one is a quite simple one which is to fill in a gap. there is no book, before this one, on the student sit-in movement. and this is really a striking fact to me when i started this project. this project actually grew out of a law school seminar paper i was working on in which i came across some fascinating court cases involving appeals of convictions for sit-in protests. and i wanted to write a paper
about it, so i went looking for the books, plural, i thought there'd be books on the sit-in movement, and i found, to my surprise, there was no single book on the sit-in movement. so, quite simply, this is a book that needed to be written, obviously, such an important part of our history that we need to have an accessible book on this topic. i also do advance an argument. i teach in a law school, i'm a legal historian, and i do have an argument about the sit-in, something i think we haven't quite appreciated in those accounts that have discussed it, and it's as follows: we can't understand why the sit-ins happened and achieve without paying attention to law and including some intricate questions of constitutional doctrine. so my book tells the story of the sit-ins with the focus on these legal issues from six different perspectives. i have six different chapters, each tells about the sit-ins from a different perspective, each centered on a different group and the role they played in this remarkable story. so i start off with the
students, the students doing a protest what they were looking to do, then i turn to the lawyers, the civil rights lawyers who came to help them and some of the issues that hay had in trying to figure out what their role in this story was going to be. i have a chapter on the sympathizers, those people who are not directly involved in the sit-ins but supported the general cause of the sit-ins and the role they played in advancing this moment. i have a chapter on the opponents of the sit-ins, basically looking across the lunch counter, standing there opposing the students' claims. and then i turn to the u.s. supreme court. i have a chapter on the justices and how they struggled with the issues that came out of the sit-ins. and then my last chapter focuses on the lawmakers, the members of congress who eventually passed a federal law, the 1964 civil rights act, which largely dealt with the issue that was at the core of the students' protest. so what i'm going to do in my remaining time here, i'm going to go through those chapters briefly. mostly focus on the first two chapters, the students and the lawyers and their different
views, different roles. so my first chapter focuses on the students themselves. that's where you need, obviously, to start the story. centers on their challenge to racial practice in the south. i have three basic questions i try to tease out. one is why do they choose this particular tactic, the sit-ins? another is why to you choose this -- do they choose the particular target, the lunch counters? and the last, what did they think they were trying to achieve with these protests? the tactics, why this form of direct action. it's really important to note that the critique the students were expressing with their actions was not only a critique against jim crow, it was also a critique against people who were considered their allies meaning civil rights lawyers. there's very much a generational critique at play here. a lot of the motivation for these protests emerged from frustration toward the establishment within the african-american community with what the students saw as a
too-easy acceptance of jim crow by their parents and their grandparents. according to one of the greensboro four, he said many of our adults had become complacent and fearful, and it is time for someone to wake up and change the situation, and we decided to start here. e say parenthetically, that's not a very fair assessment of the situation their parents grew up in and understood, but it was motivating to them to think that there was something that needs to be done, and our friends out there, our parents are not doing it. there was also a tactical critique. there was a lot of frustration among the students with the established modes of racial reform, with litigation and with lobbying. many people involved in the sit-ins saw this direct action technique as an alternative to litigation. and they saw the courts as something to be avoided not because they might lose in court, but because even if they won, they were skeptical that real change would follow. and if this is where we need to bring in the story of brown v. board of education. the brown decision came down in 1954, six years before the sit-in movement took place.
most of the students, right, these are college students who were involved in the sit-ins, were old enough at the time of brown to recognize what its significance was and what it was supposed to do. and they were also old enough to realize it didn't do a heck of a lot. most of them went to segregated schools in the era after brown v. board of education when they looked to the supreme court and to the lawyers, they admired, certainly, the lawyers fighting on their behalf; but they also thought it wasn't really achieving much for them, and they were looking for alternatives. that's the tactics. targets. why lunch counters? discriminatory treatment at lunch counters did exact a particularly abrasive toll, this raw personal experience of exclusion that really pulled a lot of students into this. but also law and lawyers did play a role here as well simply because the students asked the lawyers where should we focus our attentions before the sit-ins started, they would not have pointed at the lunch counters.
and for that reason, i'll talk more why the lawyers were skeptical at least initially, the major civil rights organizations were actually giving relatively little attention to racial discrimination for public accommodations in 1960. their focus was largely on the schools, this was what the naacp was mainly focusing on, and also voting. so this was something of an open target for them. they could get involved, they could say this is our thing, and when people accused them of just sort of being puppets in terms of someone else is pulling the strings, they could say, no, this is our issue. and it really was, they were able to identify this as something that was very much their own. so they had a vulnerable target, but also one that was quite inviting for that very reason. what were they trying to achieve, what were their goals. they had very lofty aspirational goals. if you listen to the words of the protesters at the time of the protests, they did speak about trying to change the world, trying to reset basic
structures of racial inequality throughout american society. but they also had much more on the ground, tangible goals. and these, i think, are very important to recognize the success of this social movement. this is a critical ingredient. you serve on the ground, small scale successes, the critical ingredient for empowering the movement if mobilization. so what could they achieve by doing these protests? in some ways, the response they could get talk about an achievement in and of itself. often times they'd walk into one of these lunch counters, and the lunch counter would just shut down. and they would declare that as victory. they just basically put a business for a day, shut down business for an entire day simply by walking in and demanding service. that could be an achievement that could get them out the next day. sometimes they had operators changing policy because of their protests. and then in some instances they had entire communities changing policies and really the most famous early breakthrough came here in nashville m in may --
nashville n. may of 1960, the city was able to organize and the business leaders were able to decide on a desegregation policy here in nashville. so you had these sort of small victories that kept motivating and fueling the movement even as they were moving toward these deep aspirational goals. so that's the perspective of the students engaged in these protests. next i want to turn to the lawyers, and this is the topic of my second chapter. and i'm focusing specifically on the civil rights lawyers and really those involved with the naacp led by the legal team of thurgood marshall. again, the lawyer who won the brown case. although the students and the lawyers struggled toward a common goal, they held sharply differing views about litigation and about the reliance on formal legal institutions. and their relationship was always somewhat uneasy between the lawyers and the student protesters. now, when the protests began, the lawyers were very much involved in the struggle with brown, and quite simply, it
wasn't going particular my well in early 1960. this was one of the low points when they're very much bogged down and seemingly endless litigation without a lot to show for it. initially, the civil rights lawyers actually saw the sit-ins as a problem, as something to be managed. the lawyers and especially thurgood marshall was skeptical about direct action protests in general, and they also doubted whether the students had picked a very good issue to tackle because they were skeptical about whether the students had a strong constitutional claim in what they were doing. and there's a very sort of complex area of constitutional law that explains why racial discrimination at lunch counters is very different thanker say, racial discrimination in a public school or even racial discrimination if that lunch counter were located in the town hall. right? if it's clearly run by the government as a school would be, as a cafeteria in the town hall would be, then the constitution
applies fully, and the constitutional rights in the 14th amendment including the equal protection clause applies. and after brown v. board of education, it's unconstitutional. a matter of implementing that, and that's what the naacp is focusing on. but if the business is a private business and it's not run by the government, then it's much less clear whether the constitutional rights actually apply to that. so whether it is unconstitutional for a private business to discriminate based on race is a very difficult question, and most of the n ark acp lawyers -- naacp lawyers thought the answer was likely no. thurgood marshall said this is not the right way to be doing it. there are so many other issues. they were looking at it as a potential litigation campaign, and he didn't think it was going to be a very strong campaign. it is worth noting that
eventually thurgood marshall and the naacp did come around. the doctrine was in enough flux that they eventually were able to form an argument that they would take the court for why there actually should be constitutional limitations i put on private businesses when those private businesses actually sell themselves to the public if like these public accommodations, like a lunch counter or restaurant would do. but it wasn't clear to the lawyers, and the students -- somebody nudged the lawyers in this direction. the tensions always remained between the students and the lawyers. there's a lot of tension around the whole idea that the students often times would refuse bail when they were arrested and then just stay in jail until their trials, and the lawyers' perspective was, no, you get out of jail as quickly as possible. sometimes the students didn't even want to appeal their convictions, and the lawyers said, no, you appeal, right? when they came around to belief they had a strong argument, they
had -- i'm going to go to jail. if there's an option between going to jail and paying a fine, i'm going to go to jail. i can elevate my protest action through the example of taking a jail sentence. so their whole goal was to use the apparatus of the law as a platform to make a protest. the lawyers thought, no, the apparatus of the law was a way to get correct legal outcomes. very different views with this sort of shared vision of the world they were trying to create. eventually, they were able to develop into what i describe as a tense but functional relationship. they never saw eye to eye, but they were able to work in the same world without coming to conflict with each other because the lawyers eventually did have enough of these cases to get their appeals. and, indeed, thurgood marshall after he left the naacp if about a year after this, others took this, indeed, all the way to the supreme court. they had their litigation, and
the students continued to protest, and they kind of ran into separate parallel paths. let me just walk through the rest of the book briefly. the next chapter turns to what i call the sympathizers. the focus here is on people who expressed support for the students but were not directly involved in the protests. and here i look at a very eclectic cast of characters from the president of the united states, john f. kennedy, during the sit-ins was campaigning and eventually won during some of the aftermath of the sit-ins all the way through ordinary citizens and how they viewed the protests. and this is -- allows me to chart how a claim on the constitution which is very much aspirational at the outset of the sit-ins did develop into -- but when the common sense arguments got committed to, kept saying the same thing, it does create pressure on that legal doctrine. so i describe how this takes
place. my next chapter then turns to the opponents. i look at lunch counter operators, the police involved in arresting these students, southern political leaders as well as just some committed idealogues who spoke out against the protests. the i key point here to take away is the opposition was quite divided on the issue of lunch counter discrimination. and you can contrast that with the way the opposition unified after brown v. board of education. the school desegregation decision really brought the white self together. at certain moments they come together, and at certain moments they're pulled apart. racial discrimination and sit-ins at the lunch counters helped to make some of these differences, fractures more visible and more important and more salient. and ultimately, the students were able to take advantage of that. the fact that the white south was not of one mind in standing against the cause of the sit-ins
meant that the sit-ins were able to achieve these victories along the way and eventually the great victory with federal legislation. from then i then turn to the justices of the supreme court. the supreme court got appeals every year from 1961-1964, and they really struggled with these cases for the reason i alluded to before which is as a matter of constitutional law, the constitutional status of this particular form of racial discrimination is about where you draw the line between the public realm and the private realm. in the end, i think the sit-in cases -- which there were a number of them -- were ultimately one of the great aberrations of the warren court era, led my if earl warren in the 1950 and '60s. this is a time when the justices were boldly reworking entire areas of constitutional law. in this one, in the case -- in the situation of the sit-in
cases, they broke pattern. they overturned quiks but always on narrow, fast-paced grounds, and they never gave them the big, sweeping constitutional victory that they gave, for example, in the school desegregation context. finally, my last chapter, i then turn to the lawmakers and the people who crafted and advocated for the civil rights act of 1964. with this landmark legislation, congress prohibited racial discrimination and public accommodations across the nation. it's interesting to note that the ultimate success didn't work as well in the courts as it did in the form of legislation. the mode of social protest as a challenge to the system really pushed back some of the justices. there were a number of justices who normally were allies of the civil rights movement who just felt uncomfortable with the form in which this took place, meaning the protests.
whereas the protests made a lot of politician nervous in such a way that they were just trying to find ways to stop this. so in some ways the concession by granting the claim that the students really brought to the forefront in 1960, granting this in title ii of the civil rights act served the politicians' interests more readily than the courts' interest. and this is really an interest of mine, about how different institutions or society are more or less responsive to these kind p of strong moral claims. the public accommodations provision of the civil rights act not only became law, but to the surprise of many at the time, it soon became a broadly accepted norm of conduct for the nation, and the implementation stands in stark contrast to the ordeals that have marked our strugings with desegregation of education or to rid the workplace of discrimination. so let me just wrap up with a brief excerpt from my if conclusion. the resolution of this issue first given prominence by the students sitting at the lunch
counters in the winter of 1960 was one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights era. my book is, in part, an effort to celebrate the sit-in movement and the legal ballots over racial discrimination and public accommodations that the movement sparked. it's an effort to draw attention to this moment in our ongoing struggle for racial justice and to better understand why this campaign worked when so many others did not. today our challenge is to find new ways to combine social protest and legal claims, disrupt those practices and policies that perpetuate old injustices and create new ones. the sit-in movement shows that it can be done. thank you. [applause] >> okay, now it's time for q&a. if you have a question, please
step to the mic. >> my name's robert, i teach at tennessee state university and nashville state community college history. i was wondering, i assume you've read the book, david hall bear strom's the '50s, he goes through the trial, and and he said the bryants, a although they did get away from money, they didn't have total impunity. white people -- they were shunned by other white people, and then eventually the brand son of the sheriff -- the grandson of the sheriff there who was quoted on television as making rather vulgar comments, his grandson who was later
himself sheriff endorsed mike espy in his house race, first black congressman from mississippi, and i'm wondering what you had to say about that. >> it's a long time ago. that's true that the bryants -- [inaudible] it was just a few months later he had to close it. the thing that really sparked the shunning of the families was the william bradford hughes article because they confessed to the murder. well, here are all of these focus that have gone out on a limb saying, well, you know, they're not guilty or it was deserved, and next thing you know they're taking $3,000 from william bradford huey, checkbook journalism, they call it, to confess, and they can no longer be held accountable because of
the rules, laws of double jeopardy. that was certainly part of it. i don't remember that about the sheriff's grandson. sheriff clarence strider who, basically, becomes a witness for the defense rather than the prosecution, strangely, in the trial is a very problematic and terrible character in many ways. and as an irony down in mississippi, i should say that this highway, what's the number, 49 down there? passing through webb and so on, it's an honorary emmett till highway for a few miles where it joins to become honorary clarence strider highway. one of those ironies of attempts at public history history and m, and so on. >> what exiewrks after they admitted murdering emmett till, what excuse would the fbi have for not getting them for kidnapping? >> not a federal case.
they simply stood behind the notion it was not a federal case. it was -- no one crossed state lines. a very, very strict interpretation which, of course, there were cases where the fbi did stretch those limits but didn't -- hoover and others just didn't want to in this case. thank you. >> anne carlyle, very interesting. i was interested in the importance of the photograph, and i wondered if you could speculate on if this photograph didn't exist or, you know, was it so important if this would have been such an important event. >> it was an important photograph and a very important event for the emmett till generation as african-american activists called themselves, many of them, in this era. it was a terribly important photograph to them. i actually have a friend in chicago in his early 70s, and he says he remembers seeing the photograph.
and i talked the to him about it and, no, he doesn't remember it. he remembers seeing it years and years and years later. he's not a reader of "jet" magazine. we restructure our memories. and i think part of that is about trying to give ourselves, trying to make ourselves feel a little better for a historical crime, i'll call it, and that our sympathies would not have been, would not have been -- certainly in any sense with the killers. they weren't for many, many people. and yet it becomes an easy way, it becomes a way to not think about how hard it is to change things. exactly what chris was talking about, that change comes so hard. no, there was not a photograph published and scales fell from people's eyes and suddenly they were converted the brotherhood. didn't happen that way. so much blood had to be spilled before then. and so difficult to change people's minds. >> you discuss the differences
or similarities between the law, desegregating the hunch counters and then the -- lunch counters and then the law later on, allowing business own owners to discriminate against gays? >> so the big difference we need to keep in mind is that in the situations where there are lunch counter sit-ins, there's no state or local law at issue commanding nondiscriminatory policy. the issue we're confronted with now is that we have laws actually on the books commanding nondiscrimination. so, for example, the recent supreme court case dealing with the cake shop in colorado. colorado actually had a law saying no discrimination based on sexual orientation. and then subject who were subject to that law, the owners of these businesses, are trying to say that they have some sort of constitutional right either based in their right to free exercise of religion or right to freedom of expression to basically have an exemption from this particular law, this
anti-discrimination law. so just as a legal matter, what was missing back then in the sit-ins was the states and localities had not passed this law, and they needed to wait for the 1964 civil rights act to really have much of the south fall into this law. it is worth noting the footnote that after the passage of the 1964 civil rights act, there were some efforts to challenge it by people who doesn't like the law saying that the government should not command me to serve people who i don't believe i should serve. and they threw all sorts of legal arguments in favor of this claim. and if there's some religion, some egg presentation, some basic claims of liberty, there's even some claims that it would be a form of involuntary servitude, the 13th amendment, to which all the courts at the time pretty much gave the back of their hand and said, no, this is a constitutional piece of legislation. more recently, these kind of claims have been repackaged, and a lot of that is is because the religious basis of the claim
seems to have more strength in the context of sexual orientation discrimination. these courts are more willing to look at that. it wasn't as much of an issue during the period i'm looking at because the courts didn't take them seriously. the courts today, as we've seen, are more willing to take these claims more seriously. >> okay. any oh -- other questions? okay. i think i've got a civil rights question and maybe an emmett till question. i was really stuck by your statement when you said you had a tense but functional relationship, and i understand that. did the way that it manifests itself differ from place to place? in terms of nashville, we had two legendary attorneys, alexander louie and williams. and the bombing of louie's house was something that really rallied the community.
but in looking at it, i never really noticed any sort of tension. maybe i wasn't looking in the right place. was it more severe in other areas than different from place to place, that's what i'm asking. >> it's a great question. and one thing i didn't have time to do this my talk, the category of racial justice or civil rights lawyers is, of course, a very broad category with lots of different people anytime. i was focusing largely on the national branch of the naacp based in new york in which these tensions were actually quite sharp. and we have fascinating documentation of the stress they were under. this breakthrough movement in the civil rights movement, and they were like, oh, no the, what are we going to do with this? having said that, many local civil rights lawyers were fully supportive of the students' actions. although i will say in general when students sat down and talked to lawyers particularly in the early moments of the
protests, the lawyers often said go slow, right? so one of the reasons the national movement didn't take place right away is they talked to lawyers, and they said make sure you get money together and get legal representation ready because we don't know what's going to happen. atlanta, which is a hotbed of student activism, they didn't get involved in the sit-in movement until a month or two after greensboro because they talked to lawyers, and they said we should make a statement about what you're committed to, and make sure you have everything lined up. so lawyers sometimes could sort of be urging more caution on the students, and that sometimes could cause friction. often times they did what they wanted to do, and then the lawyers would help them along the way. the lawyers were critically important to the success of the students. >> could i add something? >> yes. >> there is a little bit of an answer that does involve the till story, and that is after
the murder and the trial and all, that emmett till's mother became an activist. and for several months she spoke to tens of thousands of people, mostly in black neighborhoods but sometimes integrated, 10,000 people in new york city. roy wilkens, who became the held of the naacp just a few months, six months or so before the till murder, was never completely comfortable. he spoke at some of these, they were ways of raising money, certainly, he helped organize, but he was always a little suspicious of these really very emotional, deeply moving events. that tension was there. >> okay. let's give our panel another hand. [applause] thank you for attending this