6 Decades Later, Acquittal Of Emmett Till's Killers Troubles Town

Sep 25, 2015
Originally published on December 22, 2015 11:11 am

It was 60 years ago this week that an all-white jury acquitted two white men in the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting Mississippi from Chicago.

The case shocked the nation — drawing attention to the brutal treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South, and the failure of the justice system. The men later confessed to killing Till for whistling at a white woman.

Today, about 400 people live in Sumner, Miss., where the trial was held. The town sprouts up amid vast expanses of cotton land in the Mississippi Delta — the fertile northwest corner of the state.

Sumner's town square looks a lot like it did 60 years ago. A bank on the corner, law offices and small businesses surround the Tallahatchie County courthouse, its clock tower looming above pink crape myrtle blossoms.

Inside the courthouse, a dark wood stairwell leads to the second-floor courtroom, which is newly restored.

"Exactly the way it looked in 1955," says Patrick Weems, director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center here. He stands by the carved banister rail at the front of the courtroom. Twelve swiveling jury chairs to the left face the witness box.

"Mose Wright would have stood up here and given his testimony," Weems says. "The famous question was, they said, 'Do you know the men who murdered Emmett Till?' And he said, 'There they are.' "

It was a dramatic moment. Never in anyone's memory had a black man in Mississippi confronted whites in court.

Mose Wright was Emmett Till's great-uncle, who lived in the town of Money, 30 miles south of Sumner. Till was staying with him when the teenager made his fateful visit to Bryant's Grocery and spoke to Carol Bryant, the white woman at the counter.

Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, later kidnapped Till from Wright's home in the middle of the night. The boy was beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a cotton gin fan.

Till's mother held an open-casket funeral back in Chicago so the world could witness the disturbing images of her son's disfigured body. The resulting outrage drew unprecedented interest in the murder trial a month later.

"I had never seen anything like it," says Mississippi state Sen. David Jordan, a college student at the time. "So many people in town. So much news and so much fear."

Jordan and some classmates went to the trial, barely finding a seat in the sweltering and packed courtroom. They sat in the rear; the front seats were reserved for white people.

Sitting in the back row again as the anniversary approached, Jordan recalls being struck by the relaxed nature of the defendants. During one recess, he says, one of their wives brought the children to play at the defense table, along with bottles of Coca-Cola.

"Just going through a mockery — it was no justice or no seriousness as I could see on their faces," Jordan says, "because they all were laughing — even the jury were laughing."

After a five-day trial, Bryant and Milam were acquitted. Jordan thinks it was no coincidence that the verdict came a year after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated public schools.

"The state was set at a point. [It] had been said over and over that 'before niggers could go to school with white children, blood will run in the streets,' " Jordan says. "This was evidence, in their mind I assume, that this is the example that the world can see that we mean business."

"Mississippi in 1955 was just impossible for a situation like this," says Betty Pearson, who was 33 years old at the time. Pearson, the wife of a white plantation owner, and state Sen. Jordan are among the last living people who attended the Emmett Till murder trial.

She says stores throughout the Mississippi Delta had set mason jars by their cash registers to raise money for the defense, and every lawyer in Sumner was representing Bryant and Milam.

It infuriated her.

"To me it said that, OK, every white person in Tallahatchie County — if not in all of Mississippi — is a racist. And they're trying to defend these people," Pearson says. "And I knew that was not true."

Pearson, now 93, says that after the trial she was stunned by the silence.

"I never got one question from a single soul in Sumner," she says. "Their reaction to it was, if we just ignore it, it'll go away."

The courthouse was remodeled in the 1970s, and up until about 10 years ago there was very little said about what transpired here.

In 2007, Pearson joined a local biracial group that apologized to Till's family. Another member of the group, the Rev. Willie Williams, says that in the years since, they've been working to restore the courthouse and foster reconciliation.

"Reconciliation is the bridge," Williams says. But he says there's still work to be done to restore trust.

Others believe the Till trial has been a stigma on Sumner that it didn't deserve; Till was murdered to the south in LeFlore County, but his body was discovered in Tallahatchie.

John Whitten III practices law in Sumner. His late father was chief counsel for the defense in 1955.

"We didn't do it. It didn't happen here," Whitten says. "This is something that was dragged in and left to rot in our courthouse."

Whitten says that what happened here 60 years ago should never be denied, but that it also should not be honored.

The state has created a historical trail to show how events, including the Till case, sparked the modern civil rights movement, and there's a marker here along the banks of the Tallahatchie where Till's body was pulled from the river.

But confronting a fraught history has been an ongoing struggle in Mississippi. Today, that marker is riddled with bullet holes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to spend the next few minutes revisiting a case that shocked the nation in the early days of the civil rights movement. Sixty years ago this week, an all-white jury in Sumner, Miss. acquitted two white men in the murder of Emmett Till. He was a 14-year-old black boy visiting Mississippi from Chicago. The men later confessed to killing Emmett Till for whistling at a white woman. The case brought attention to the brutal treatment of African-Americans in the Deep South and the failure of the U.S. justice system. NPR's Debbie Elliott has that story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Sumner is a town of about 400 people that sprouts up amid vast expanses of cotton land in the Mississippi Delta, the fertile northwest corner of the state. Sumner's town square looks a lot like it did 60 years ago. The bank on the corner, law offices and small businesses surround the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, its clock tower looming above pink crepe myrtle blossoms. Inside the courthouse, a dark wood stairwell leads to the second-floor courtroom, newly restored.

PATRICK WEEMS: Exactly the way it looked in 1955.

ELLIOTT: That's Patrick Weems, director of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center here. He stands by the carved banister rail at the front of the courtroom. Twelve swiveling jury chairs to the left face the witness box.

WEEMS: Mose Wright would have stood up here and given his testimony. And the famous question was they said, do you know the men who murdered Emmett Till? And he said, there they are.

ELLIOTT: It was a dramatic moment. Never in anyone's memory had a black man in Mississippi confronted whites in court. Mose Wright was Emmett Till's great uncle, who lived in the town of Money. Till was staying with him when the teenager made his fateful visit to Bryant's Grocery and spoke to the white woman at the counter. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and J. W. Milam later kidnapped Till from Mose Wright's home in the middle of the night. The boy was beaten, shot in the head and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a cotton gin fan. His mother held an open casket funeral back in Chicago so the world could witness the disturbing images of her son's disfigured body. The resulting outrage drew unprecedented interest in the murder trial a month later. Mississippi State Senator David Jordan was a college student at the time.

DAVID JORDAN: I had never seen anything like it because there were so many people in town, so much news and so much fear. All of that was together.

ELLIOTT: Jordan and some classmates came to the trial, barely finding a seat in the packed courtroom. They sat in the rear. The front seats were reserved for white people. Sitting in the back row where he did 60 years ago, Jordan recalls being struck by the relaxed nature of the defendants. During one recess, he says, one of their wives brought bottles of Coca-Cola and the children to play at the defense table.

JORDAN: It was just going through a mockery. There was no justice or no seriousness as I could see on their faces because they all were laughing. Even the jury was laughing. So that hurt me. I expected this to be as serious to them as it was to me.

ELLIOTT: After a five-day trial, they were acquitted. Jordan says it was no coincidence that the verdict came a year after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown decision outlawing segregated public schools.

JORDAN: The state was set at a point, it had been said over and over, before [expletive] could go to school with white children, blood will run in the streets. And this was evidence in their mind, I assume, that this is an example that the world can see that we mean business.

BETTY PEARSON: Mississippi in 1955 was just impossible for a situation like this.

ELLIOTT: Betty Pearson was 33 at the time, the wife of a white plantation owner. She and Senator Jordan are among the last living people who attended the Emmett Till murder trial.

PEARSON: It was not a very happy week for us. It was hot as the very hinges in the first place. It must have been well over a hundred degrees in that courtroom.

ELLIOTT: She says stores throughout the Mississippi Delta had set mason jars by their cash registers to raise money for the defense. And all of the lawyers in Sumner were representing Bryant and Milam. It infuriated her.

PEARSON: To me, it said that, OK, every white person in Tallahatchie County, if not in all of Mississippi, is a racist. And they are trying to defend these people. And I knew that was not true.

ELLIOTT: Pearson, now 93, says after the trial, she was stunned by the silence.

PEARSON: I never got one question from a single soul in Sumner. Their reaction to it was, if we just ignore it, it'll go away.

ELLIOTT: The courthouse was remodeled in the '70s, and up until about 10 years ago, very little was said about what transpired here. In 2007, Pearson joined a local biracial group that apologized to Till's family. The Reverend Willie Williams says in the years since, they've been working to restore the courthouse and foster reconciliation.

WILLIE WILLIAMS: Some people look at the word reconciliation, OK, we've been reconciled; now everything is fine. No, reconciliation is the bridge. But the restoration of that is the work that have to take place to restore trust.

ELLIOTT: But others believe the Till trial has been a stigma on Sumner that it didn't deserve. Till was murdered in another county, but his body was discovered in Tallahatchie. John Whitten III practices law in Sumner.

JOHN WHITTEN III: We didn't do it. It didn't happen here. This is something that was dragged in and left to rot in our courthouse.

ELLIOTT: His late father was chief counsel for the defense in 1955.

WHITTEN: It's a long time ago. I think it's part of history. I don't think it should be denied. I don't think it should be honored.

ELLIOTT: Confronting a fraught history has been an ongoing struggle in Mississippi. The state has created a historical trail to show how events, including the Till case, sparked the modern civil rights movement. There's a marker here, along the banks of the Tallahatchie, where Till's body was pulled from the river. Today, the sign is riddled with bullet holes. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Mississippi Delta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.