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South's racism is battered but not demolished

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MONEY, Miss. -- It has to be one of the saddest old buildings in the South -- for more than one reason.

This Mississippi Delta town was never grand, basically a whistle stop for trains picking up cotton. A half-century ago, the streets were dirt and dust. They're paved today, but asphalt didn't bring prosperity. It's still a down-at-the-heels hamlet in short supply of its namesake.

Neglected and largely unnoticed is the building I came here to see. In 1955, it was called Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market. A 14-year-old black youth, Emmett Till, supposedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the store owner's wife. A few days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till, savagely beat him, shot him, tied a gin mill fan to his neck with barbed wire and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River.

Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury -- but then arrogantly confessed to the crime in a 1956 Look magazine article. In recent years, the Till story has become the stuff of books, academic conferences and documentary films.

Perhaps more telling than all the words is the husk of the old grocery where the story's first chapter unfolded. The building still has four walls, even though they appear to be standing only because of support from ivy. The roof is caved in. No marker reminds visitors of the horrendous crime that began here.

The forlorn building is a metaphor for that peculiar plague: Southern racism. The Ku Klux Klan no longer rules. Like the store, the structures of Jim Crow are battered, many collapsed.

But they're not gone. Rising hatred and division in the South could easily refurbish the old ways, just as the store could be rehabilitated by a handyman. After all, Roy Moore -- a neo-Confederate who believes the Old South was a God-directed society where all, including slaves, were happy and benefited -- is likely to be Alabama's next governor.

After leaving Money, I went to Sumner, site of the trial of Bryant and Milam. As I stood looking at the courthouse, a pickup truck with three boys and two girls drove by. They spied me and my colleagues, clearly visitors, and there's only one reason people come to look at the courthouse.

The youths jeered a bit of doggerel: "Emmett Till, Emmett Till, he got what he deserve, and we'd do it still."

The South still has a long way to go.

Group Senior Editor John Sugg's blog is at www.johnsugg.com. He can be reached at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com. For a review of The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Till, a documentary, click here.

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