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Back in Tuscaloosa 

A columnist now teaches in the town where he once fled from racists

Bill Maxwell gained fame as an iconoclastic columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. He's an African-American journalist who disdains the National Association of Black Journalists. He champions the cause of Palestinians at a time when the idea of defending any beleaguered group gives many scribes weak bladders.

But before garnering accolades as a columnist, he grew up in grinding poverty in Florida. Four decades ago, the SCLC sent him to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to organize voter registration drives.

He lasted a day before threats of violence from white citizens drove him out of town. "These [white] people in Tuscaloosa were angry" at the Civil Rights organizers, Maxwell recalled. "We got out of there. I started driving and didn't stop."

Maxwell spent a decade at the St. Petersburg Times before fleeing the newspaper's increasingly rightward tilt a year ago. Now he's shepherding a journalism program at the historically black Stillman College. With unconcealed satisfaction, Maxwell is participating in four days of seminars at the school examining the legacy of violent Southern racism.

The conference is a gathering of academics, journalists and just plain people who have been fascinated by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American youth from Chicago who had come to visit relatives in Mississippi.

Till had whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Four days later, on Aug. 28 at 2:30 a.m., Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till, brutally beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, tied a piece of machinery around his neck with barbed wire, and dropped him in the Tallahatchie River.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, brought the body back to Chicago and held an open-casket funeral so the world could see the reality of Mississippi, circa 1955. Some reports stated 50,000 people viewed the body. Bryant and Milam were indicted -- but acquitted by a white jury after 67 minutes of deliberation. Later, in a Look magazine article, they confessed to the crime.

It was -- and remains -- a galvanizing horror story in the Civil Rights Movement. And, as Maxwell told me, the terrorist, white supremacist power structure in the South may be more subdued but it still lives. It's existence is attested by racially loaded code words on hate radio, attempts to suppress the black vote throughout the South, and crosses burning early this summer in North Carolina.

That's why it's important to understand the disease. The Stillman conference is one such effort. Other examples are the trials of men who committed the crimes, and believed they'd never face justice.

Meanwhile, Maxwell teaches in a town where he once had to flee from racial terrorists. It's a microcosm of the region's march toward progress.

Group Senior Editor John Sugg is back in the Deep South making trouble. Look for his reports on the Stillman conference and from the Hurricane Katrina disaster area at www.johnsugg.com.

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