There were four cars already parked in the left lot of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church at 6 a.m. Dec. 3. Getting out of their cars on the church’s slick sidewalk were Dave Rozzell and Mmoja Ajabu, both members of the Veterans Association of African Descendants, who were greeted by a gusting wind as they opened their doors.
Four other people met them on the church’s pavement to get their carpool assignments. They’d be taking two cars for their early morning journey to Bowling Green, Kentucky — one car driven by Rozzell and the other one by Ajabu.
Before pulling out of the parking lot, Rozzell said a prayer with those in his car.
“We thank you that you’ve given us our life, our breath and our very being,” Rozzell prayed. “Send us on our way, oh God, with your spirit in us, before us and to keep us safe and allow us to accomplish our mission and return safely. In this we pray in the name of ItnYeshua, Ha Mashayach, Jesus the Christ, amen.”
After the prayer, Rozzell followed Ajabu out of the parking lot to embark on the 3 1/2-hour journey to Bowling Green.
The long road ahead
Groups including the Veterans Association of African Descendants, the New Black Panther Party and True Healing Under God (THUG) came together to bring justice to Emmett Till and his family with a two-part demonstration in the city where Carolyn Bryant, who was involved in the 14-year-old’s kidnapping and death, was last known to live.
As the sound of soft jazz music played in the background on Rozzell’s radio, the passengers discussed the way Black people are treated in America.
“For too long we’ve lived in a system that is unfair to us,” Devon Johnson, a passenger and member of the New Black Panther Party, told the Recorder, “and honestly, I am at a point where if we’re going to keep living in a system like this then it needs to be fair. It needs to be upheld the way that it is towards us when we do wrong and when we are crucified for things.”
The summer of 1955
In August of 1955, Till, a Chicago native, visited family in Money, Mississippi, where he was accused of whistling at Bryant, a white woman. Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, and her brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till and forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan down to the bank of the Tallahatchie River.
There, Till was beaten by Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law, who gouged out the 14-year-old’s eyes, shot him in the head and lynched him. On Aug. 29, 1955, the sheriff of Leflore County issued a warrant for Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant and Milam for the kidnapping.
In September of 1955, Roy Bryant and Milam went to trial where they were acquitted by an all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi. Later both men admitted to the murder. Both men have since died, and now Carolyn Bryant is 88 years old.
In 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation to determine if there were others involved in the murder. A grand jury in Leflore County later declined to indict Bryant, citing insufficient evidence to charge her.
In 2017 author Timothy B. Tyson published a book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which tells the story of Till’s murder and includes information from a 2007 interview with Bryant. In the book, according to Tyson, Bryant admitted that Till never made advances toward her, which contradicts her original statement she gave in the 1955 trial.
In June, a group from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation worked with filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp to discover an unserved warrant for Bryant from 1955; it was in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse. This motivated many people across the country, including the passengers inside Rozzell’s and Ajabu’s cars, to push authorities to serve Bryant the warrant.
The Recorder contacted the district attorney’s office for the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, where no one was available to give comment regarding the process of serving Bryant the warrant.
“The fact that there was a warrant out for her arrest changes the whole dynamic of justice at this point,” Johnson said during the car ride. “So, I feel like this is a pivotal point in history to really have justice be served and prevailed over what used to happen back then.”
As their journey on the highway continued, winds picked up and howled loud enough to be heard inside of the car. The sky was gray and filled with clouds. Two hours had elapsed, and Rozzell turned off the jazz music, and conversations ceased as passengers read a public safety warning that popped up on their phones the same way an Amber Alert does.
“The Bowling Green Police Department has received a threat to the groups who intend on protesting in front of the Justice Center and the 1000 block of Shive Lane,” the warning read. “An unknown person threatens to shoot protesters and anyone helping protestors. We are working diligently to determine the origin of the threat.”
The threat caused the city to cancel its Christmas parade, but it did not discourage the passengers from continuing their journey.
‘Justice does not have an expiration date’
Both cars made it to Bowling Green around 10 a.m. During one of the group’s stops before the protest, Ajabu spoke about the importance of getting justice for Till.
“We have a situation where a young 14-year-old boy was lynched by people in Mississippi, and one of those people that was involved in that lynching is still alive,” Ajabu told the Recorder as the Kentucky wind blew into his face. “There was a warrant issued out for her arrest. That warrant has not been served and just because it was issued in 1955 doesn’t mean that it expired in 2022. Justice does not have an expiration date.”
According to Ajabu the goal of the protest was to heighten awareness of where Bryant lives. Ajabu explained to the Recorder how he was told that the warrant for Bryant could not be served because law enforcement could not locate her.
“Go serve the warrant,” Ajabu said.
‘A Mother’s Love Never Dies Justice Shall Prevail’
Around noon both cars made their way to the Warren County Justice Center in Bowling Green, where the first part of the protest began.
Meeting them there were Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, along with people from the town, students at Western Kentucky University and organizations from across the country.
The winds calmed, and the once-cloudy skies were blue with the sun shining bright on everyone as they made their way to the front of the Justice Center.
As members of the New Black Panther Party and Veterans Association of African Descendants made their way to the stairs, Ajabu encouraged some of the protesters to join them. Standing on the bottom stairs of the Justice Center was Sterling wearing a white shirt that read “A Mother’s Love Never Dies Justice Shall Prevail” in bold black lettering.
Standing behind Sterling was Ajabu dressed in black pants and a black button-down shirt, and pinned to his chest was a New Black Panther Party pin. The people were quiet as Ajabu looked around.
“I’m concerned that I fought for a country and a system that would hide a woman — a white woman! — who participated in the lynching of this woman’s cousin,” Ajabu said as he pointed to Sterling.
Ajabu then introduced Sterling, who gave her speech with tears filling her eyes.
“I came all the way from Mississippi — Jackson, Mississippi — to be here, to be a part of this, because the world needs to know about the injustice that continues to happen,” Sterling said as tears fell. “White supremacy helped these people get away with the kidnapping and murder of Emmett, my relative.”
Sterling told the crowd that white supremacy rules the state of Mississippi and that there are many racist organizations in the state, including the Council of Conservative Citizens and the Southern White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Sterling confirmed she plans to file a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi for not serving Bryant the warrant.
“Denial of justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Ajabu said to end the first protest.
With his fist raised high in the air, Ajabu started a call-and-response of “Black power” and instructed everyone to meet at Bryant’s house next.
“I feel so empowered and so honored to stand with Emmett Till’s family,” Western Kentucky student Darinda Reddick said after the protest.
‘We are not running from the fight; we are running to the fight’
As Rozzell and Ajabu pulled into a Big Lots parking lot, there was a group of protesters who came marching across the street toward Bryant’s apartment — or at least the last place she was known to live.
“No justice, no peace!” protesters chanted back and forth until they got to the grassy hill area of the parking lot. Bowling Green Police Department officers were across the street by the apartment building, preventing protesters from getting close.
As the area filled with more protesters, attorney Malik Zulu Shabazz, president of Black Lawyers for Justice, grabbed the microphone.
“When we were driving in here, they said there were threats that somebody was going to come out here and they were going to kill us,” he told the crowd. “But I came here to tell you that there is but one God, and besides God there is no other and we fear nothing but God and God alone.”
Shabazz continued: “We are not running from the fight; we are running to the fight.”
He asked the crowd, “How do we find the state of Kentucky?”
“Guilty!” they responded.
Bryant wasn’t seen at the protest, and it wasn’t clear if she was at her apartment.
Washington, D.C., radio host Nia 2X also spoke, addressing her comments to the officers.
“Some of you all are looking for problems, but you all already got a problem, and you won’t do nothing about it, and you call yourself a police officer — an officer of the law. No, you’re not,” she yelled. “We’re not the enemy and you know it.”
With fists raised in the air, protesters chanted “Black power,” which concluded the demonstration.
Protesters dispersed back into the Big Lots parking lot, where civil rights activist John C. Barnett, founder and president of the group THUG, recalled a quote from Malcolm X about getting a root canal.
“Nobody wants that shot from the dentist,” Barnett said. “But if you get that shot and they remove that bad tooth things are going to be a whole lot better.
“So today is the shot we had to give Bowling Green,” he said. “This is the shot that America needs to face and this is the first step for them to hear our cry.”
‘I feel like we all grew today’
After a day of traveling and protesting, Rozzell and Ajabu got in their cars and drove to Sterling’s hotel, along with a few members of the New Black Panther Party, where they sat in her room and talked. Later that night, they went to a celebratory dinner with Shabazz and more out-of-town protesters.
Around 7 p.m., the group from Indianapolis said their goodbyes and started their journey back home.
During the car ride home Johnson spoke of the impact the day’s events had on him.
“I feel powerful,” Johnson said. “I went to serve a purpose and that purpose was served for the betterment of my people, for the betterment of Emmett Till’s family. I feel like we all grew today in a huge way. I’m honestly honored to be a part of history.”
Contact staff writer Timoria Cunningham at 317-762-7854 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_timoriac.