Why Isn't Joetha Collier Known as a Victim of Racism in Mississippi?Roundup
tags: racism, Mississippi
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recent book is Until I am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America.
It is late evening on Tuesday, May 25, 1971, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in the small Delta town of Drew. A young Black woman stands on Union Street in a yellow dress. She is a teenager, thin, pretty, and dark-skinned, with straight black hair and thick bangs. At this moment, she is chatting with friends near Eddie’s and Susie’s Cafe, a popular hangout, at the end of a day of celebration.
A car is cruising down Union Street, toward the café. Inside are three white men who have been drinking beer by the quart. The driver’s window opens. A hand emerges, holding a .22-caliber pistol. There is only one shot, but it finds the young woman’s neck. The car drives off.
Joetha Collier was 18 when she died. She and her friends had gathered to celebrate her class’s graduation that day from Drew High School—a formerly all-white school that she had helped integrate. Joetha was heading to Mississippi Valley State, a historically Black college nearby, on a scholarship. She wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to help lift her family out of poverty, haul them out of Drew to someplace better. Graduation night was meant to be the beginning of her climb. As she fell to the pavement, newspapers reported, she was still clutching her high-school diploma.
Collier lived close to the place where Emmett Till had been lynched 16 years earlier. Yet her case didn’t have the same kind of national attention and staying power—at the time, the media often got her name wrong, misspelling it as “Jo Etha.” Her killing, and the subsequent court proceedings, did briefly galvanize civil-rights activists during the 1970s, but her story has since faded from the public imagination. Few people took notice when the Department of Justice, after briefly reopening the case as part of a civil-rights cold-case initiative, released a report in January 2020 to close it, partly because of an expired federal statute of limitations: “This matter should be closed without prosecution or referral.”
The case has largely been forgotten, in part because the investigation netted a conviction but never offered a clear motive—unlike the open white supremacy that motivated Till’s murder, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. But perhaps Joetha’s story has also been forgotten because it troubles our collective historical memory. The case challenges the triumphant narratives we often tell about the civil-rights movement: how activists across the nation worked together with public officials to topple Jim Crow and bring an end to an era of racial injustice.
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