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Columnist teaches where he once fled from racists

Bill Maxwell

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Bill Maxwell gained fame as an iconoclastic columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. He's a black journalist who disdains the National Association of Black Journalists and champions the cause of Palestinians at a time when the idea of defending any beleaguered group gives many scribes weak bladders.

Before garnering accolades as a columnist, he was a black youth who'd been raised in grinding poverty in Florida. Four decades ago, the SCLC sent him to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, AL, to organize voter registration drives. He lasted a day, before threats of violence from white citizens drove him out of town.

Now he's shepherding a journalism program at the historically black Stillman College. And he's participating in four days of seminars at the school examining the legacy of violent Southern racism.

The conference is a gathering of academics, journalists and just plain people who have been fascinated by the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. Till was a 14-year-old black youth from Chicago who, while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was tortured and murdered for whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, brought the body back to Chicago and held an open-casket funeral so the world could see the reality of Mississippi, circa 1955.

Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam were indicted -- but acquitted by a white jury after 67 minutes of deliberation. Later, in a LOOK magazine article, they confessed to the crime.

As Maxwell told me, the terrorist, white supremacist power structure in the South may be more subdued -- but it still lives. Its existence is evidenced by racially loaded code words on hate radio, by attempts to suppress the black vote, by the crosses burning this summer in North Carolina.

That's why it's important to understand the disease. The Stillman conference is one such effort. Other examples are the trials of men who committed the crimes, but believed they'd never face justice. Meanwhile, Maxwell teaches in a town where he once had to flee from racial terrorists.

Senior Editor John Sugg is back in the Deep South making trouble. Look for his reports at www.johnsugg.com.

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