The Unfinished Story of Emmett Till’s Final Journey
Till was murdered 65 years ago. Sites of commemoration across the Mississippi Delta still struggle with what’s history and what’s hearsay.
The Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse stands like a castle in the central square of Sumner, Mississippi. With its four-story Romanesque brick clocktower, the building looks just as it did 65 years ago when an all-white jury gathered here and acquitted the men who lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till.
The verdict came in late September, the last week of summer. It was “hot as the very hinges” recalled resident Betty Pearson, who attended the trial. Every lawyer in town had signed on to defend Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam; businesses put out jars to collect donations for the defense. The proceedings took five days, and the deliberation — soda break included — was hardly more than an hour. A separate jury declined to find Bryant and Milam guilty of kidnapping two months later, and in January 1956, protected by double jeopardy, the pair confessed to the gruesome murder in a cover story for Look magazine.
Till’s murder and the exoneration of its perpetrators set off a tidal wave of civil rights activism. Tens of thousands of people filed past Till’s open casket at his funeral in Chicago; photographs of Mamie Till-Mobley weeping over her son’s brutalized body hung on the walls of organizers’ offices in Selma. Rep. John Lewis was 15 at the time, just one year older than Till. “Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” he wrote in an op-ed published posthumously in the New York Times. “He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor.”
But the counties in the Mississippi Delta where Till’s murder and the events that followed took place — Sunflower, Tallahatchie and Leflore — were a world apart from this fervor: There, white folks like Betty Pearson were horrified by the crime while others were horrified by the attention it received. Either way, it was all laid to rest quickly. Pearson recalled to a historian that no one in the area spoke of Emmett Till for 50 years.
This silence not only helped to maintain the region’s status quo of racial violence long after the end of Jim Crow, but it also meddled with…