Emmett Till: Opening the doors to understanding

Group wants to embrace the truth spread the word

Daily Journal

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.

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 Chicgao 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 profounding 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.”

Contact Daily Journal county-courts reporter Leesha Faulkner at 678-1590 or leesha.faulkner@djournal.com.

Emmett Till in books, movies and music

Some books about Emmett Till:

“The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative,” edited by Christopher Metress.

• “Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case,” by Curtis Crowe.

• “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson.

• “The Emmett Till Book,” by M. Susan Orr-Klopfer.
• “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” by Marilyn Nelson and Philippe Lardy.

• “Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement,” by Clenora Hudson-Weems.

• “The Ghost of Emmett Till: Based on Real Life Events” By W. James Richardson.

• “Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press,” by Davis W. Houck, Matthew A. Grundy and Keith A. Beauchamp.

Movies about Till:
• “American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till.”

• “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.”

Songs about Till”
• “The Death of Emmett Till,” Bob Dylan.

• “The Story of Emmett Till,” Bluessmyth.

• “Emmett Till,” Randy Weeks

The event as told by the FBI
Here’s what happened, according to the synopsis prepared by the FBI:

On Aug. 24, 1955, Emmett Till entered the Bryant Grocery & Meat Market in Money. Several black people played checkers on the store’s front porch. Till’s cousin followed him into the store and came out.

Carolyn Bryant-Donham said she waited on Till when he stopped at the candy case. Her sister-in-law, Juanita Milam, was in an apartment in the rear of the store, taking care of both families’ children.
Bryant-Donham testified to that and the following events during the trial of her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam.

Bryant-Donham said she placed the item Till asked for on the candy case and held her right hand out for the money. Instead of dropping the money into her hand as prescribed by segregationist social custom, Bryant-Donham said the black
teenager “caught my hand” and gripped all of her fingers in his palm and asked, “‘How about a date, baby?’”

The woman told the jury she “jerked” away and turned to go to the back of the store. She said Till caught her by the waist and said, “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?”

She said she tried to free herself and Till told her not to fear him. Another black person entered the store and grabbed Till. Bryant-Donham said she followed him to get a pistol out of a car parked nearby, and as she exited the store, Till whistled.

Acting on a dare
Simeon Wright, 64, who was with Till and his now-deceased cousin, Maurice Wright, told FBI agents that prior to Till’s going into the store, several in the group dared him to say something “to the white women in the store” because Till had shown them a photograph of a white woman in his wallet.

The FBI agent, who isn’t identified in the documents, explained it was the kind of photograph that comes in a new wallet.

Wright told the FBI he didn’t know what had happened inside the store. Till had bought some bubble gum and left without any kind of incident, according to an interview labeled “confidential source” by the FBI. This source also confirmed the whistle and that Till, his cousin and others got into a car and left.

It was getting dark.

Roy Bryant, Bryant-Donham’s first husband, was in Brownsville, Texas, where he had hauled a load of shrimp. He returned to Money three days after the whistling incident. She told Bryant her version of the incident after he forced her, according to Bryant-Donham.

Bryant and Milam discovered Till’s identify after they stopped several black youths along the road and quizzed them about the man who had whistled at Bryant-Donham.

Later that night, a group of men sat around drinking at Milam’s store in Glendora, just north of Money, and decided to get Till. Otha Johnson Jr., now dead, confirmed this meeting and that night was the driver of the truck that carried the men to the attack on Till.

Finding Till
About 2:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 1955, they went to the home of Till’s uncle, Mose Wright, on the Grover C. Frederick farm. Wright, his wife, grandson and two others were asleep in the house with Till.
Wright testified at the trial that Bryant came to his house and said he wanted to “talk to you and that boy.” Milam was standing at the door with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in another. Another man stood nearby, Wright testified.
Milam told Wright, “We want that boy that done the talking down at Money.”

Wright led them to the room where Till slept. The youth got up and dressed. Elizabeth Wright, Mose’s wife, got up and asked the men to release Till. She offered to pay them, but the two white men didn’t respond.

The report says, “Before Milam and Bryant entered the car with Till, ‘they asked if this was the boy,’ and someone said ‘yes.’ When asked if the voice was that of a man or a woman, Wright testified. “It seemed like it was a lighter voice than a man’s.”

Here’s where the FBI report is unclear. Some informants still living said Bryant-Donham remained at home with her children. Another informant, whose identity is secreted by the FBI, claimed that Bryant and Milam brought Till by the apartment in the back of the store for Bryant-Donham to identify.
Till was never found alive again.

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