• Image about Fannie Lou Hamer

In a salute to Black History Month, American Way takes you on a blues and civil rights tour of the Mississippi Delta.

WE’RE NINE MILES west of Avalon, Mississippi, traveling in a chartered bus down an unpaved road, when we arrive at our intended destination: the isolated community of Money, the site of one of the most monstrous hate crimes in American history.

The bus stops outside of an old, abandoned building once known as Bryant’s Grocery. The roof is caving in and the storefront is overgrown with vines and weeds. Our tour group, under the direction of attorney and blues historian Tom Freeland, quietly emerges from the bus. No historical markers exist to show that this is where Emmett Till, 14, was murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman, the wife of store owner Roy Bryant. No signs tell us that Till’s body was found floating in the nearby Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a 70-pound cotton-gin fan. In the silence, each of us focuses inwardly on the past. A palpable feeling of foreboding and menace hangs over the ruined country store.

After an all-white jury found Till’s killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, not guilty, the two men confessed to the crime, knowing they were protected by double jeopardy. Emmett Till’s death didn’t go unnoticed, though. Instead, it galvanized support for the American civil rights movement, which took root in Ruleville, a town just 12 miles from here.

Until I participated in this 214-mile, eight-hour tour sponsored by the University of Mississippi, I didn’t realize how close Ruleville was, geographically and spiritually, to where Till was murdered. It’s humbling to realize I’ve lived in Mississippi for more than 30 years without making this connection. Ruleville is the hometown of civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer. Less than 10 years after Till’s murder, Hamer joined the 1964 Freedom Summer Project to help African-Americans register to vote — and to let their voices be heard. Despite attempts by town authorities to stop them from organizing meetings (including shutting off electricity and water to black churches, canceling fire-insurance policies, and locking demonstrators up in livestock pens), Hamer and civil rights leader Robert P. Moses succeeded in forming the Freedom Democratic Party and eventually gained two seats at the National Democratic Convention. Hamer ran for Congress in 1964 and 1965 and was instrumental in implementing Head Start programs. Her theme song was “This Little Light of Mine.” The tour group gathers at Hamer’s grave, its tombstone bearing her famous motto: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”