If there was ever an inverse example of a Confederate monument, it might be the Lorraine, the Memphis motel where Martin Luther King, the most famous leader of the civil rights movement, was struck down on a balcony. Or maybe it is the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham, Ala., house of worship where four girls died in a terrorist bombing by white supremacists in 1963.
Even though those landmarks were the birthplaces for heartache and home to major events in the struggle for freedom and justice, they now stand as monuments to black survival and reminders of past atrocities.
While Black America has always fought for liberty and equality, many historians say that the widespread national outrage that sparked the civil rights movement began on Aug. 24, 1955, in the tiny town of Money, Miss. That’s the day a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till walked into Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market.
Nothing would ever be the same.
A group dedicated to preserving the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. bought the Lorraine Motel in 1982 for $144,000 and the site is now home to the National Civil Rights Museum. In 1992, the 16th Street Baptist Church became the cornerstone of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, directly opposite the newly-built Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market is a decaying ruin with a private property sign out front.
Alvin Sykes, the president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign called the building’s condition “a damn shame,” explaining to the Clarion-Ledger that the owners are “holding history hostage.”
“They are demanding a ransom that no one can afford, ensuring that one of the nation’s most important civil rights sites will soon lie in ruins,” he said.
“There have been seven to 10 efforts to buy the store, and there have been thousands of dollars offered,” Dave Tell, author of an upcoming book about Till, told the Clarion-Ledger.
It all seems so puzzling until you realize the store where Carolyn Bryant accused Till of groping her is now owned by the children of the late Ray Tribble, the foreman of the all-white jury that acquitted Carolyn’s husband, store proprietor Roy Bryant, along with his brother, J. W. Milam, of the murder of Emmett Till.
Even after the two legally-exonerated killers took $4,000 from Look Magazine to confess to Till’s murder, Tribble continued to defend the verdict. Tribble’s explanation for his not guilty verdict was simple: Even though Mamie Till identified the body as her son, he did not believe it was Emmitt Till. Tribble’s main reason? The body fished out of the Tallahatchie River had hair on its chest.
“Blacks don’t grow hair on their chest until they get to be about 30,” he told Richard Rubin in a New York Times story.
Tribble’s children say they are more than willing to sell the store, but it is the price that shocks most of the people. Even though the property is valued at below $20,000 according to NBC News, the Tribbles are willing to part with the dilapidated building for the low, low price of $4 million.
Don’t laugh. They’ve lowered the cost from their original asking price of $40 million.
In case you’re wondering why they would set the price so high, it is their absolute right to do so, not because they have the right to erase history and whitewash away the fact that their father was complicit in setting the men free who committed one of the most heinous racial acts of violence in history, there is another reason. The family literally owns the town.
Aside from the Baptist church and the old post office, the Tribbles own every single piece of property in Money.
The state has placed a Historical marker in front of the building, and in 2011, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History awarded $152,004.80 to the family to restore Ben Roy’s Service Station, the building next door to Bryant’s Grocery, in hopes it would open the door to the possibility of restoring Bryant’s Grocery. The family happily accepted the money.
No such luck for the place next door.
“They just want history erased. I know it’s a sore spot, but at the same time, it can be used as a teaching tool instead of using it for hatred,” said Sherron Wright, whose great-uncle identified the men who kidnapped Till. Dave Tell seems to concur that the Tribble family’s motive might be rooted in erasing their father’s part in one of the most gruesome tales of America’s racist past.
“I don’t know why, but every time the process breaks down, it seems the Tribble family is unwilling to let their store be turned into a monument that might suggest the complicity of their patriarch in letting Till’s killers walk free,” Dave Tell says.
Maybe this is part of their attempt at healing. Or perhaps the Tribbles don’t like the idea of their family name being forever associated with a murder. Maybe they are truly sorry about what happened and would like to forget that part of history.
Of course, Mamie Till never had that privilege.