A very special 14th birthday

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Times-Journal writer

Aug. 28, 2004, was a day to remember for Darius Howard of Autaugaville.

It was his 14th birthday and he was in Money, Miss., with a group of African-American males who were entering the ninth grade.

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They were part of the Selma-based Democracy Project’s 2004 Summer Leadership Institute which brought together

two 14-year-old black males

from 13 Alabama Black Belt-area counties for four weekends in August.

On Saturday, Aug. 28, the group was visiting the now-dilapidated building in Money on the 49th anniversary of the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed by two white men and then thrown into the nearby river.

The moment was captured by Auburn journalism professor Trish O’Kane, an adult leader on the trip, who published an account on the Internet, following interviews with three participants including Howard.

“On the night of Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by two white men simply because he dared to speak to a white woman. Many believe the murder sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

“Forty-nine years later, the tiny wood and brick store in Money, Miss., where the fatal conversation took place, is overgrown with kudzu vines; collapsing pieces of an awning swing perilously overhead.

“A group of 14-year-old African-American boys from Alabama made a civil rights pilgrimage to this spot in the Mississippi Delta on Aug. 28, 2004, to lay a wreath for Emmett Till. As they stood silently contemplating the whitened brick walls, the rotting wood and the passage of time, thunder rumbled in the distance, despite a fierce noonday sun.

“Just a block away, the old oak trees still stand on the banks of the muddy Tallahatchie River where Till’s body was dumped, long-silent witnesses to a crime still unresolved. An all-white jury acquitted the kidnappers on Sept. 23, 1955. In May 2004 the Justice Department reopened the case.

“The pilgrimage, ‘Rosa Parks to Emmett Till: Connecting Links, Crossing Bridges and Creating Hope,’ was organized by the Rev. Lawrence Wofford, an (AME Zion) minister from Selma.

“Founder of the Democracy Project, Wofford asked teachers and principals from schools in Alabama’s poorest counties to select 14-year-old boys with leadership potential. He raised money for the trip, and teen participants had to promise they would write about it afterward and give talks at their schools.”

Darius Howard’s comments were recorded in the article: “We were going to see where Emmett Till, a boy who was 14 years old at the time, was killed for hissing at a white woman. There were two white men who went to Emmett’s house at 2 a.m. They took Emmett away, shot him and drilled a hole in his head. After they had beaten him brutally, they tied a fan to his back and threw him in the Tallahatcie River. Aug. 28, 2004, marked the 49th anniversary of his brutal death. It was also the day of my 14th birthday, which made it very special and sad to me because Emmett Till was killed at age 14.”

“I was thinking about his parents and family members while we were at the building,” said Howard reflecting on the trip and the impression it made on him.

“It was a very sad event. It was totally uncalled for. Race and color are not important…. No matter how old or young you are, people can kill you if you try to speak (out). I believe there has been a little change (since his death), but not that much,” he said.

Howard’s mother, Barbara, accompanied her son to the interview.

“Darius had never been away from his home on his birthday,” she said. “It was something he needed to venture out and experience…. It was a sad time for him but also a happy time. The group surprised him with a pizza party for his birthday….. Trish O’Kane gave him a gift, a calling card from me so he could call me on his birthday. He did not call on Saturday but did so on Sunday to say thank you.”

“I can’t wait until my sweet 16 birthday,” Darius chimed in.

“I thank God for Darius’ first-hand experience of the death of Emmett Till,” said Barbara Howard. “It was a sad situation. I thank God that it is not like it used to be. I ask God to cover us with his blood to protect us, to stop hatred and racism…. God made us all alike. Before God we will not be judged for our color, nationality, religion or creed, but by the deeds we have done in this life. God loves us and we are to love him and one another like he loves us.

“I’m so thankful for those who organized this trip. It took a lot of planning. My son was able to see what many wish they could see,” she said.

His father Curtis Howard was also pleased that his son had this experience, said Barbara Howard, along with her family, friends and church family.

“I want to be either a computer scientist or a movie director,” said Darius Howard. “I like working with computers and cameras. I hope to go to college at Tuskegee or UAB.”

His mother said he works hard on his school work and that not only she but many others feel he is “a very sweet boy.”

Darius Howard has a younger sister, Keyonna Howard, 11.

The family belongs to Fig Tree Baptist Church in Jones, where Darius sings in the choir.

According to his mother, he has received an application

from Alabama State to participate in the Upward Bound program. He was recently selected Junior King 2004 for October Homecoming at his school.

His favorite subjects are math and English and he enjoys February Black History Month each year, where he first heard about Emmett Till.