I’ve been driving through Dixie for days when at last I enter Jackson, Mississippi, a disconcertedly quiet place that doesn’t even know I’m there. It’s a contrast to the smaller southern towns I’ve recently visited, many of which seemed acutely interested in the white guy in the rental car asking questions about civil rights. I’m just here to gather stories, I explained, from the people who lived them. Though as I’d found, many of the people who’d lived them were no longer alive, making their stories difficult to tell. I didn’t know how to persuade the dead to talk or the living to listen. I drove to Jackson anyway.
In 1933 or so, an eight-year-old named Medgar Evers watched a man named Willie Tingle get dragged through the streets of their town. This was in Decatur, Mississippi—70 miles west of Jackson. Willie, a family friend, had made the mistake of allegedly talking back to a white woman. He paid the price with his body. He was dragged, he was shot, he was hanged. He was reduced to his blood-stained clothes. Medgar and his brother Charles passed Willie’s clothes daily while walking to school. For black boys in Mississippi the message was clear: if you keep your eyes low and your feet moving, there’s a chance you might survive.
Twenty-two years later, a boy named Emmett Till was alleged to have talked back to a white woman. He, too, paid a price with his body. One night in August 1955 he was abducted by a pair of men in Money, Mississippi, who beat him, shot him, tied a gin fan round his neck. Once his body was recovered, it was placed in a casket, its lid flung wide. At his funeral, Emmett’s mother wept as she stared at the face that no longer resembled her son. “I wanted the