Emmett Till group wants to embrace the truth, spread the word

Published 9:30 am Monday, October 1, 2007

TUPELO (AP) — Sumner needs healing.

The Emmett Till Memorial Commission is calling for a dialogue between blacks and whites in the Mississippi Delta town of 407 people, and it’s opening up an old wound to begin the conversation.

The commission originally was formed to help lead restoration of the courthouse in Sumner where the trial was held to bring Till’s killers to justice. But J.W. Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, were acquitted by a jury in September 1955. Several years later they admitted to the crime in an interview for Look magazine.

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On Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1955, 14-year-old Till went into Bryant Grocery & Meat Market operated by Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant-Donham, to buy some bubble gum. Bryant-Donham later claimed the Chicago youth made a pass at her in the store.

Other black youths present at the time said Till whistled at the woman as she left the store — a crime in the old days of strict segregationist rules. Three days later, Roy Bryant, Milam and others took Till from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night. Another day later, Till’s body was fished out of the section of the Tallahatchie River that borders Tallahatchie and Leflore counties.

An FBI report that documents the events is available publicly on the Department of Justice’s Web site at www.foia.fbi.gov.

In the report, almost 500 pages long, the names of living people are marked out.

Reading the report Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi, has helped coordinate efforts of the commission to examine the FBI synopsis and trial transcript of the Till incident. The goal is to discuss and learn from the 52-year-old event that drew the world’s attention to the Delta.

“What we’re hoping is by dealing with the past, we will be able to avoid having terrible things like this happen in the future,” Glisson said.

On Oct. 2, the commission and supporters are expected to unveil a historical marker at the courthouse that tells the story of Till. It is the first of several such markers expected to mark the murder.

Betty Pearson, a resident of Sumner and member of the commission’s board of directors, attended the trial. She was 33 years old and secured a couple of press passes from her husband’s uncle who owned the weekly Sumner Sentinel.

Pearson, now 85, said she knew the defense attorneys in town who represented Milam and Bryant. That all the defense attorneys in town would join together to represent these two men “burned me up,” she said, because it seemed to present to the world that Sumner condoned the action.

Sumner’s reputation received a black eye for a murder that actually occurred in Leflore County. The only reason Milam and Bryant were tried in Sumner was because Till’s body was found in the river that bordered the county and nobody realized before authorities decided to prosecute the two men that the murder had occurred in Leflore County, Pearson said.

Since that time, Sumner has been unable to heal the wounds and the division between blacks and whites. The group won’t issue a statement asking for a grand jury to reconvene to examine the evidence for a possible indictment against Bryant-Donham. The group plans to issue a statement apologizing for the injustice. The statement will say in part:

“We the citizens of Tallahatchie County realize that the Emmett Till case was a terrible miscarriage of justice. We state candidly and with deep regret the failure to effectively pursue justice. We wish to say to the family of Emmett Till that we are profoundly sorry for what was done in this community to your loved one.”

Earlier this year, a Leflore County grand jury examined the evidence put together by a three-year FBI investigation and declined to issue any indictments.

“There’s not much left in the way of evidence,” Pearson said. “Everybody, except for a few, are all dead.”