In August 1955, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago was tortured and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Less than one month later the two white men responsible were found “not guilty” by an all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi. But the case has never died. Emmett Till lives on, and the town in which he was killed is now a tourist attraction.
The courthouse in the town square where the trial took place is on the National Register of Historic Places, renovated at a cost of $3 million. Across the street, visitors can enter the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, and if they drive south from Sumner on the Emmett Till Memorial Highway they will pass the Emmett Till Multipurpose Complex, a community center, and further on they will see a sign for the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center (ETHIC), which occupies an old cotton gin (a cotton gin fan was tied to Till’s neck so his body would quickly sink after the murderers dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River); across the railroad tracks from the cotton gin, tourists can walk through a 20-acre park and nature trail devoted to Till’s memory. A brochure created by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission offers a self-guided “civil rights driving tour,” with directions to 12 nearby locations relevant to the Till case.
For those who are not inclined to spend their vacation sightseeing in the Mississippi Delta, there are three movies on Emmett Till in the works, one to be directed by Whoopi Goldberg. Perhaps the most compelling as well as comprehensive account of the murder, the trial, and all that followed is the newly published Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, by Devery S. Anderson (University Press of Mississippi, 2015).
Anderson called me several years ago while doing research for the book. “I’m sure you get a lot of calls and e-mails about this,” he apologized, “and I’m sorry to bother you, but you are the only one who was at the trial who is still alive.” I was 23 when I went to the Mississippi Delta and covered the trial for The Nation. I had no idea that the story would become so relevant again more than sixty years later. Nor did I imagine that racism was so ingrained in American history and culture it would still be just as prevalent—and in fact, openly flourishing, not just in the South but throughout the country, with no end in sight.
The Till trial was the first major “race” story after the Brown v. Board of Education decision banning segregation in public schools, and reporters from all over the world came to see it. The trial lasted one week, and it only took the all-white jury an hour and seven minutes to deliver the “not guilty” verdict that had always been a foregone conclusion. The final lawyer who spoke for the defense summed up his case by announcing his faith that “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to free these men.”