Mississippi state Sen. David Jordan, who was a college student in 1955, remembers the relaxed atmosphere in the courtroom during the trial. “Even the jury were laughing,” he says. The courtroom in Sumner, Miss., where, in 1955, an all-white jury acquitted two white men in the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year old black boy.
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.
The courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where, in 1955, an all-white jury acquitted two white men in Till’s murder. A debate rages in Mississippi over the state flag, which includes the Confederate flag. But it still flies at the courthouse.i
The courthouse in Sumner, Miss., where, in 1955, an all-white jury acquitted two white men in Till’s murder. A debate rages in Mississippi over the state flag, which includes the Confederate flag. But it still flies at the courthouse.
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.”
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