By: Dave Tell
On May 5, 2011, the Tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority announced the creation of the “Mississippi Freedom Trail.”
The first marker on the “Freedom Trail” was unveiled two weeks later. With members of Emmett Till’s family in attendance, the sign commemorating “Bryant’s Grocery” became the first sign on the new trail. It marks the spot where, on August 24, 1955, Emmett Till whistled at shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant, thus setting in motion the tragic sequence of events that culminated in his torture and murder.
The history of this sign, however, dates back to October 17, 2009. On that day two citizens of Jackson, Mississippi (one doctor and one businessman) participated in the “Great Mississippi Road Trip” organized by the Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law firm based in Jackson. Late in the afternoon, the tour stopped here. The group gathered on the side of the road in front of the crumbling Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market and heard the story of Till’s murder. The story teller was a Delta State Professor, Luther Brown.
As the months passed, these two Jackson citizens never forgot the story they heard in Money. It bothered them that a story of such importance was insufficiently memorialized. At that time, there was no marker at the store. In fact, there was not a single marker in all of Leflore County. They wanted to do something about it. To this end, they set up a dinner in April 2010 with Luther Brown. The dinner was at Po Monkey’s, a legendary juke joint outside of Cleveland. At the dinner they discussed the possibility of a sign outside of Bryant’s Grocery. As one of the Jackson citizens remembers the dinner, “By the time we finished our Bud Lights, we had pledged a total of $4000.” Thus was the Freedom Trail born.
By the time of the Po Monkey’s dinner, Luther Brown had already been in conversation with Allan Hammons about the possibility of a “Civil Rights Trail.” Along with Wanda Clark, Hammons had done the graphics for the massively successful “Mississippi Blues Trail.” There was a desire to make an analogous “Civil Rights Trail,” but there was no money. At least, there wasn’t any money until the Bud Lights were finished at Po Monkeys. With a check in hand, Brown called Hammons and State Senator Willie Simmons. With momentum now moving in the right direction, Tougaloo College donated money to fund markers to Medgar Evers and the Freedom Riders. The combined money from Tougaloo and the private Jackson citizens was sufficient to fund the first five markers on the new “Freedom Trail.”
The text on the marker was written by Luther Brown. It has generated minor amounts of controversy and there has been talk of revising the sign. The primary issue is that both sides of the sign reference the LOOK “confession” as if it were an authoritative account of the murder. One suggested revision calls the LOOK article a “misleading confession.”
The sign was produced by Allan Hammons at a cost of approximately $2000. Although you will find no evidence of this on the sign, it was funded by two private Jackson citizens committed to preserving Till’s story.