Today in the Delta
For over half a century, Mamie Till-Mobley, every day of her life, walked a steady path on her call for justice. “I’ve been trying to get my son’s case reopened since 1956. People have told me to let this thing die, even people in my own family. But people need to be aware.”
The year before her death at the age of eighty-one, she was fortified by two documentaries: “The Murder of Emmett Till” by filmmaker Stanley Nelson on PBS’s American Experience, and Keith Beauchamp’s feature documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” She declared, “it looks like Emmett is surfacing once again.”
Mamie Till-Mobley died on January 6, 2003, before the outpouring of acknowledgment and tribute to her, her son and their family began fully to flourish. Apologies, public tributes, articles, poems and novels, an opera, a jazz suite, a classic oratorio, and the efforts of organizers toward community reconciliation have gained a momentum that furthers Mamie Till-Mobley’s insistent belief in the potential for the United States of America to become truly a civilized land of Liberty.
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On July 1, 2007, esteemed Mississippi State Senator David Jordan, with eleven colleagues, two of whom were white, succeeded in passing a bill in the State Legislature that officially apologized for the murder of Emmett Till:
WHEREAS, the murder of Emmett Till is one of the great crimes of history, and its legacy still vexes the United States and the State of Mississippi. Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters, and years of unpunished brutality have produced a hardness of conscience. Perpetual pain; distrust and bitterness of many African-Americans could be assuaged and the principles espoused by the Founding Fathers would be affirmed, unifying all Mississippians, if on the 51st anniversary of this infamous crime, the state of Mississippi acknowledges and atones for its pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement; NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI:
SECTION 1 (1) That the state of Mississippi hereby apologizes for the murder of Emmett Till, which occurred on August 23, 1955, in Money, Mississippi, and calls for reconciliation in this matter….
Senator Jordan was one of the few African-Americans present at the trial of killers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam at the Sumner courthouse. A nineteen year old freshman at Mississippi Valley State University, he covered the trial on a class assignment. When the all-white all-male jury acquitted the accused, Jordan responded, “…we were ready to do whatever was necessary to change the social conditions… It was evident that white people didn’t care.”
Young David Jordan and Christine (now his wife) had been to the movies when they first heard the news that Till’s body had been pulled out of the Tallahatchie River. He remembers feeling a shock that someone right in their midst could murder a 14-year old child. The couple became committed civil rights activists and science teachers in Greenwood’s integrated city schools. As president of Greenwood Voter’s League for twenty years, Jordan initiated lawsuits in pursuit of equality in local politics and educational opportunity. Over the years he has been the frequent target of death threats by white supremacists.
Senator Jordan was a featured speaker at a second notable apology in Mississippi, this time on the local level. On May 9, 2007 at a ceremony in front of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in the tiny town of Sumner, members of the biracial Emmett Till Memorial Commission each signed the Resolution of Apology to the Till family. Not far from an imposing Confederate soldier statue, a white 85 year old Sumner plantation landowner, Betty Pearson, stood with Robert Grayson, an African-American who as a child picked cotton on the Pearson plantation. Today Grayson, Till’s distant cousin and the same age, is mayor of Tutwiler, a nearby town. Together Grayson and Pearson read the Resolution to the large integrated audience.
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County believe that racial
reconciliation begins with telling the truth. We call on the
state of Mississippi, all of its citizens in every county, to begin
an honest investigation into our history. While it will be painful,
it is necessary to nurture reconciliation and to ensure justice for
all. By recognizing the potential for division and violence in our
own towns, we pledge to each other, black and white, to move
forward together in healing the wounds of the past, and in ensuring
equal justice for all of our citizens….
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County recognize 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.
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County acknowledge the horrific nature
of this crime. Its legacy has haunted our community. We need to under-
stand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to
occur so that we can ensure that it never happen again. Working
together, we have the power now to fulfill the promise of ‘liberty
and justice for all.’
Betty Pearson, one of the guiding forces behind the Apology is known as the only white person both blacks and whites trust in Tallahatchie County. As a student at Ole Miss, her early race consciousness led her to help organize a successful strike for higher wages by black laundry workers. She was 33 when, like young David Jordan, she attended the trial of Till’s killers. She obtained press passes from her husband’s uncle who ran the weekly Sumner Sentinel. Pearson and her friend Florence Mars, a white anti-racist activist from Philadelphia, Mississippi sat with white reporters behind the jury box. Among the five defense attorneys at work representing Bryant and Milam, “Harvey Henderson was best man at our wedding. Johnny and [his wife] Marianne were in our bridge club. Here were these people who were social friends, and they were doing this. I was horrified,” she said.
The trial opened Pearson’s eyes to the viciousness of racism. While her husband, Bill Pearson, shared her commitment to defiance of white tyranny, her father argued heatedly that she betrayed her heritage, especially when she served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. (Nine years later Florence Mars testified before a federal grand jury investigation the killings of civil rights workers James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, her home town)
Betty Pearson presented the Apology to Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who received it on behalf of two other family members: cousin Wheeler Parker who had accompanied Emmett Till on his vacation to the Delta; and Deborah Watts, a cousin of Mamie Till-Mobley on the Board of the Emmett Till Foundation in Chicago. Simeon Wright, who shared a bed with Till the night he was kidnapped, said “We want to thank you all today for what you are doing here. You are doing what you can. If you could do more, you would. Back in 1955, Tallahatchie County did nothing to help us.”
Sumner Town Supervisor Jerome Little said, “Books have been written, stories have been told, documentaries have been made. The community of Tallahatchie has never said a word.” A large green historical marker with gold lettering commemorating the Till case was unveiled. It speaks clearly to the community and to the ever increasing number of visitors who stop to see the infamous courthouse now officially on the civil rights trail.
Authentic apology carries within it remorse and the resolve to change. At this time significant action is underway in Till country. The Tallahatchie Board of Supervisors created the Emmett Till Memorial Commission to honor the life and legacy of Emmett Till, restore the courthouse into an Emmett Till museum, establish an Emmett Till civil rights trail, create civil rights curriculum in local schools, and encourage multi-racial dialogue. The Commission functions under the wing of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. Institute director Susan M. Glisson says, “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.”
Betty Pearson knows “the institute is absolutely essential…I’ve lived in Tallahatchie County for 60 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen adults – both black and white – sitting on an even basis and talking openly about common problems and needs. It is happening, and it’s needed to happen for a long, long time.”
Many years ago Senator Jordan, the son of a sharecropper, was slapped by a white man for failing to address him as “sir.” Today when he supports a black candidate running for office or demands the Narcotics Task Force cannot be cut “when we’ve got drug trafficking running rampant across the task force district,” the “undercurrent of hostility” surfaces. Eggs have been thrown at his wife’s car. Windows of his home have been broken many times. Rather than retreat, he installed a video camera over his front door.
When Mrs. Till-Mobley looked out over the tense crowded courtroom from the stand, she could not have known that one black man and one white woman sitting in that room to bear witness, would be her allies to work for reconciliation. Senator David Jordan and Betty Pearson, each deeply affected by the trial, meet at the Sumner courthouse over fifty years later on a mission of healing and hope for the future.