WHY ARE WE STILL talking about the murder of 14-year-old Emmett TilL some 50-plus years postmortem? I blogged on the topic last August upon the 56th anniversary of this young African American boy’s brutal death back in 1955.
Now his name is frequently appearing as national and international reporters, civil rights observers and historians link some aspects of Till's Mississippi lynching to the recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
As Aug. 28 brings the 57th anniversary of this modern civil rights event, I remember doing the research back in 2004 and 2005, while looking into another Mississippi murder that was less publicized than Till’s killing.
But talking to the family of Clinton Melton, still residing in the Mississippi Delta, they assured me that others should hear their murdered relative's story, as well:
Once the J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant trial (and acquittal) in Sumner, Mississippi ended for the murder of Emmett Till, less than a month later in the nearby small cotton town of Glendora, a black service station attendant and father of four children was killed by a friend of Milam's.
A Delta man by the name of Elmer Kimball murdered Clinton Melton, the attendant at a small service station, and then nineteen days later, Melton's young wife was killed, only a week before Kimball's murder trial opened.
Fourteen-year-old Till of Chicago was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta at the end of August when he was kidnapped, tortured and killed after he was accused of whistling at a white store clerk.
Then in December, Melton was murdered only four miles from where Emmett Till's body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River six months earlier.
Kimball, Milam's friend, had lived in Glendora for a short time, managing a local cotton gin, and had an account at the gas station where Melton worked, his daughter told me.
On the day of the murder, Kimball, 35, was driving a car borrowed from his friend, J.W. Milam, one of the two men accused and acquitted of killing Till, when he drove to the gas station and asked for a fill-up.
Melton's daughter, Deloris Melton Gresham, was a toddler when her parents were killed, but she later was told what occurred at the service station:
"When Kimball drove up to the station, my father's boss told my father to go out and fill up his car. But when he was done filling the car, Kimball went into a rage and said he only wanted a dollar's worth of gas, and that he was going to go home and get his gun to shoot him.
"The gas station owner tried to talk him down, but couldn't. He told him my father was a good negro and that he did not deserve to be hurt. He really pleaded with Kimball."
AS SOON AS KIMBALL left, his boss told him that he had better leave, fast. But his car was out of gas and he had to fill it first.
Kimball came right back and began shooting at my father. Another man was in his car with him, and yelled for him not to shoot. He jumped out of the car and ran into the station to hide.
On arrest, Kimball claimed Melton shot at him first. McGarrh [the white owner of the gas station] denied this, adding that Melton did not have a gun at any time during the quarrel. A bullet hole was found in the windshield of Melton's parked car.
AN ANGRY SOUTHERN newspaper publisher, Hodding Carter, quickly reacted to the murder of one of "Mississippi's own," comparing it to the Till case in a Delta-Times editorial:
"[Melton] was no out-of-state smart alec. He was home-grown and "highly respected.".... There was no question of an insult to Southern womanhood. There was only an argument about ... gasoline.
"There was no pressure by the NAACP, "credited" with the outcome of the Till trial.... So another "not guilty" verdict was written at Sumner this week. And it served to cement the opinion of the world that no matter how strong the evidence, nor how flagrant is the apparent crime, a white man cannot be convicted in Mississippi for killing a negro."
LITTLE ATTENTION was given to the death of Gresham's mother that occurred on or around December 21, 1955, approximately nineteen days after (her father) Clinton Melton was killed on December 3.
Officially, her mother's death was blamed on faulty driving. "Later, a relative told me that was not true, that everyone knew she was run off the road," Gresham said.
Gresham, a toddler at the time, recalled being trapped inside her mother's car as it sank to the bottom of a murky bayou near Glendora. A relative driving by saved her life and that of her baby brother.
But Beulah Melton drowned.
"My mother was a pretty woman, known for being bright and outspoken," Gresham said. "People who knew her have told me we are very much alike - both in looks and in personality."
Beulah Melton had been picking up information on her husband's death and would have been a "problem" for Kimball at the trial, Gresham said.
From news accounts and the talk around Glendora, there was no provocation of her father's killing. It was outright murder, according to white witnesses, including the white service station owner. The Melton family was well known in Glendora.
Clinton Melton had lived there all his life and, "for once, white people spoke out against the killing of a negro. The local Lions Club adopted a resolution branding the murder 'an outrage' [and pledging to donate $400 to the family]," Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, later wrote.
Melton's widow told Medgar Evers she feared justice would not be done if the NAACP interested itself in the case, and asked him not to become involved. "Her wishes were respected."
In a later investigation after Mrs. Melton's death, Medgar Evers discovered the club had given the widow only twenty-six dollars and that a local white minister had given her sixty dollars of his own.
Relatives took in Delores Melton Gresham and her siblings, and Gresham continued to live in Glendora with her grandmother.
"My grandfather was so upset, he left Glendora and never came back."
Unlike some earlier Mississippi white on black murders, Kimball was charged for the murder and although not convicted, spent some time in jail:
Kimball Loses Bid for Freedom on Bond
Sumner, Miss. (AP) -December 28, 1955 - Elmer Kimball today lost his bid for freedom on bond while awaiting grand jury action on a charge of murdering a Negro man.
Three justices of the peace held a preliminary hearing for the white gin operator and refused bond. Officers returned Kimball to jail to await action of the grand jury which meets next March.
The hearing was held in the little courthouse where the sensational Emmett Till trial was held. Bond usually is refused in cases where a person is accused of a crime which carries a possible death sentence upon conviction.
Kimball is charged with murder in the shotgun slaying of Clinton Melton, Negro service station attendant at nearby Glendora and father of four children. The accused man testified he fired in self-defense after someone shot at him three times. Kimball said he didn't know who fired until he returned the fire and killed Melton.
Lee McGarrh, Melton's employer, testified that Kimball fired without provocation, and Melton was unarmed. He said Kimball became angry at the Negro during an argument over gasoline for Kimball's car. McGarrh said Kimball declared he was going home for his gun and [sic] kill Melton.
ONE WIRE SERVICE sent a staff member to cover the Kimball trial, and the only Mississippi newspaper that sent a staffer was Carter's Greenville Delta Democrat-Times. The late reporter David Halberstam remained in Mississippi after the Milam-Bryant trial and wrote as a freelancer.
This time cameras were barred, not only from the courtroom but also from the entire courthouse property, and no press table was set up.
The sentiment [for conviction] was particularly strong in the Glendora community where Kimball shot Melton and where both the deceased and the defendant were well known, according to Halberstam, "Elsewhere in Talahatchie County, of course, it tended to become the usual matter of a white man and a black man."
Apparently Kimball did the most damage to himself when he got on the stand, as Halberstam told it:
"[He] got up there before those twelve Mississippians and told them a story about his relations with Melton that flatly contradicts all the Mississippi mores.... Kimball said he went inside and told McGarrh that Clinton was getting pretty nasty and asked him to total up his account and he'd be back and settle up; when he returned a few minutes later someone started firing at him, hit him, and he went back to his car and got his shot gun.
"Kimball's story would be hard for any jury to believe, because they would know.... "[You] cannot provoke a Negro attendant to talk like that no matter how much you irritate him, particularly a trusted Negro such as Clinton Melton."
AFTER FOUR AND one-half hours, the jurors walked in and announced their decision to acquit.
Times were now more dangerous for Mississippi's African Americans. One white Glendora resident, asked by a reporter for his opinion of both the Till and Melton murders told him, "There's open season on the Negroes now. They've got no protection..."
* * * * *
Clinton and Beulah Melton's daughter never moved from the Delta.
She keeps a picture of her mother who looks like she could be her twin. While she has never owned a picture of her father, Gresham said she would have liked to know him better and continues to question what happened to her mother on that frightening day.
Yet her story ends on a higher note.
In 2003, Keith Beauchamp, a New York filmmaker, discovered a copy of an old newsreel showing the story of Clinton Melton's murder. Beauchamp incorporated the reel into a documentary on Emmett Till, and made sure that Gresham had a copy for her family.
The following year, the documentary was shown on a Chicago television station, resulting quite by chance in one of Gresham's brothers discovering his sister. A family reunion took place that summer.
"It was joyous," Delores Gresham said. "We talk to each other on the phone several times a week, and I'm meeting other relatives through my brother."
(A partial excerpt from "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited," by Susan Klopfer. Copyright 2005 Susan Klopfer.)
To arrange for Susan Klopfer to speak to your organization on Emmett Till or civil rights history, contact her at http://susanklopfer.com
Susan Klopfer, journalist and author, writes on civil rights in Mississippi. Her newest books, "Where Rebels Roost: Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited" and "The Emmett Till Book" are now in print and are carried in most online bookstores including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. "Where Rebels Roost" focuses on the Delta, Emmett Till, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore and many other civil rights foot soldiers. Both books emphasize unsolved murders of Delta blacks from mid 1950s on. Klopfer is an award-winning journalist and former acquisitions and development editor for Prentice-Hall. Her computer book, "Abort, Retry, Fail!" was an alternate selection by the Book of-the-Month Club.