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“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist. I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

By Adam Horn
Oxford Stories
aghorn1@go.olemiss.edu

 

Senator David Jordan

“My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist.”

Born on Whittington Plantation, south of Greenwood, Mississippi, in April of 1933, State Senator David Jordan has witnessed the progression of civil rights from the struggles of the mid-50s to today, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Senator Jordan recalls that he had just returned from a job picking peas in Wisconsin to begin school at Mississippi Valley State College in August of 1955 when young Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Leflore County.

In September, one of his social studies professors charged his students with reading the newspaper articles written about the trial and formulating a report on what they had read. Jordan often sat with his brother, Andrew, and their friends, Samuel and T.J., while discussing the trial at length. Soon the group decided reading and talking about it was not enough; they wanted to see the trial firsthand.

Pitching in a quarter each for gas, they set out for Sumner, Mississippi for the trial. When they arrived, they took a moment to hang around outside and take it all in.

On the front lawn of the courthouse, Jordan noticed a few reporters gathered when suddenly one of the men among them shouted, “That’s Mamie Till! Emmett Till’s Mother!” Immediately the grieving mother became the center of attention, and Jordan remembers thinking she must have been an exceptionally strong woman.

Escorted by Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, Mamie Till was asked if she thought her son would receive justice in Mississippi. Till meekly responded, “ I am just here to observe.”

After the congressman and Till entered the courthouse, reporters followed with David and his friends not far behind. Jordan recalls newspapers then had tried to raise the notion that Till was not dead, but that he had been seen in Chicago, and his death was simply a hoax intended to increase membership for the NAACP.

Jordan remembers that the man who retrieved Till’s body was on the stand. Chester Miller of Century Funeral home, a respected figure in the Greenwood African American community, stood soaked in sweat as he was hostilely cross-examined in the 95 degree courtroom by the defense who questioned the veracity of Till’s corpse. All arguments were silenced, however, when Miller produced a ring that bore the initials of Emmett’s father, found on the boy’s finger.

As the years passed, Jordan witnessed the charge for civil rights along with some of the atrocities that accompanied it. None were so devastating as the evening of April 4, 1968.

Senator Jordan recalls it was the day after he and his wife, Chris, had celebrated their shared birthday on April 3. He was at home grading papers after returning home from Marshall High School, where he taught science at the time, when the phone rang.

The call was from a nurse working at Dr. Fred Sandifer’s office who knew he had been involved in the civil rights movement in college. “Turn on your TV,” she said. “Dr. King has been shot in Memphis.”

Jordan’s heart sank into his stomach, and he ran to tell his wife, Chris. When they turned on the news, they saw ABC news commentator Sam Donaldson reporting the tragic news through tears.

“There was nothing we could do but break down crying ourselves because we were completely devastated,” Jordan recounts in his book, From The Mississippi Cotton Fields to the State Senate: A Memoir. As they flipped through the channels, every news channel was reporting the story, and many journalists were tearful.

As far as the “Dream” is concerned, Jordan feels we have made significant strides, but still have much work to do. “If I could make it back then, I feel young people should be able to make it today for sure,” Jordan said. “Young people burning the midnight oil and saving their money is how we can achieve the dream.”

Senator Jordan said he believes religious leaders should step up as Dr. King did in these politically divisive times using readings from the Bible to support noble causes. “Too many religious leaders are afraid of community reaction because the issues are political,” he said, “ but running from politics is like trying to run from the sky. You can’t do it.”

Jordan encourages others to listen to everyone, regardless of their background, because God does not see race.  “My whole life, I’ve wondered how a man can be faithful to the word of God and be a racist,” he said. “I still haven’t quite figured it out.”

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