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Writer Natalie Preddie admires the statue of BB King at BB King Centre in Indianola, Miss.Handout

The story of Emmett Till’s racially fuelled murder has haunted me since I was a child, a harrowing event my grandfather told me about, explaining why I, a bi-racial person from Toronto, should never venture south of the border, let alone the Mason-Dixon line.

But here I am, standing on the steep banks of the Tallahatchie River, where nearly 60 years ago the 14-year-old’s beaten and tortured body was found. The air is still, and brown water rushes by my feet. I am on a driving trip through Mississippi, a state with an infamous history of racism and segregation, praying that from a painful past, I can discover a hidden peace and a brighter future for people who look like me.

As I soon discover, from the Mississippi Delta in the northwest to the capital, Jackson, farther south, there are people and organizations all over the state celebrating the Black strength, resilience and joy that come with a painful past.

“We’ve tried to put up a memorial here a few times,” says Patrick Weems, executive director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Miss. But the sign was “shot at, vandalized and just taken down. This is the fourth one and I think this one will stay.” This resistance to change is a sentiment that hums across the state, like a low-frequency resentment seeping from the foundation.

The centre is one of the organizations bringing attention to Mississippi’s troubled history by focusing on racial reconciliation. The state would not acknowledge Till’s memory for more than 50 years, so the centre created a road map of 22 sites that contribute to the telling of his life, death and legacy. I am visiting as many as I can bear.

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A statue of Emmett Till was established in Greenwood, Miss., a small town in the Mississippi Delta, in October, 2022.Handout

My experience starts at the recently refurbished courthouse in Sumner where Till’s white murderers were acquitted. Rows of hard seats sit in a cavernous wooden space facing a domineering bench, which is framed by both an American and Confederate flag. My anger slightly subsides when I head to the bathroom in the judge’s chambers and smile imagining the white judge’s fury could he know that a Black woman was using his toilet.

My day gets more painful as we visit the dilapidated grocery store where Till allegedly whistled at a white woman, and the barn where he was subsequently tortured and murdered. The markers at these sites are meant to inspire healing by bringing attention to the tragedy and creating real opportunities for dialogue.

And that healing is something I see again and again as I continue my journey through other parts of the state.

I am spending the night in Jackson when I hear that there is a weekly open mic blues night at Hal & Mal’s, a nearby bar. Shortly later, I’m there with a heavy-handed old fashioned and a plate of traditional smoky barbecued ribs. The music is intoxicating – Gibson guitars play emotional melodies, harmonicas sing and smooth, soulful vocals fill the bar.

Blues has roots in Mississippi, an evolution of haunting spirituals and the “call and response” work songs of the enslaved, capturing a soul-stirring collective of pain, strength and hope. You can see their deep appreciation for the music as people sway between tables and nod to the beat, occasionally shouting a joyful “Yeah, baby!” The energy is mammoth, filled with warmth and unadulterated joy. Although I’ve never been here before, I feel like I am part of something in the mostly Black crowd, a shared happiness that comes from the music made for us by us.

The next morning, in search of more Black joy, I head to the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, a small city in the Delta about two hours north of Jackson. This is where the famed musician chose to be buried and is home to his greatest memorabilia, including his tour bus, all available for the public to enjoy. For a blues fan, this is a must. The Delta is where many Blues artists originated, where they planted seeds of a musical movement that had to leave the state to bloom. But regardless of his stature and fame, King always came home. He played free concerts in Indianola, donated money and focused on giving back to the community that raised him.

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Ms. Preddie sits outside a former sharecropper cabin in the Mississippi Delta, a reminder of the the state's strong connections to slavery.handout/Handout

“Like B.B. King, we look after our community,” Malka Polk-Lee, executive director of the centre, tells me. The centre offers free music lessons, education for students in the area and provides scholarships. “Like B.B., many of our residents struggle with diabetes, so we offer seminars on living with this disease. This interactive space is everything that B.B. King stood for.”

The museum also holds town halls and local festivities such as graduations and barbecues, and during the pandemic, acted as the area’s COVID-19 vaccination site. It’s a place where life in this primarily Black community is valued and celebrated. I began to understand that this state was not a hive of hate and resentment but a society of love, support and continual hope.

That night, I am back in Jackson, trying out the Apothecary, a low-lit and broody cocktail spot. I start chatting with the young man sitting next to me. Justin Wilkes is in his late 30s, well dressed with an infectious smile, and has a slight southern drawl. He is a board member for the Mississippi Blues Trail, a collection of historical markers and museums that tell the unique story of the rich musical genre. We chat about his time at Howard University, living in Washington as a lawyer, meeting civil rights giant John Lewis and his recent return in Mississippi.

There is work to be done here to achieve racial equality, Wilkes tells me when I ask why he returned to his home state. “My skills are more effective here than in D.C., helping someone else get richer. My people need me.”

Although there will never be justice for Emmett Till, this connection to the past and clear vision for the future give me hope for Mississippi’s next generation of leaders. More than just a land of blues and juicy barbecue worthy of exploration, this is a place of resilience, optimism and community.

If you go

Where to stay: Fondren is a racially and economically diverse neighbourhood in Jackson. Since the 1920s, Fondren has been a primarily African-American cultural hub with unique shops, restaurants, art galleries and more. I enjoyed my stay at Homewood Suites Fondren, 2815 N State St., hilton.com.

Where to eat: Stamps Super Burgers has been a local institution since the mid-1970s. This Black-family run restaurant serves juicy burgers, mouth-watering fries, crispy onion rings and pure Jackson legacy. 1801 Dalton St., Jackson.

Don’t miss the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History. They are in the same building and offer an interactive and immersive exhibition that takes guests through the history of human rights in the state, from slavery to today. 222 North St. #2205, Jackson. Closed Mondays. mcrm.mdah.ms.gov

The writer was a guest of Visit Mississippi. The agency did not approve or review the story before publication.

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