History of the Center
The Emmett Till Interpretive Center was the vision of the late Jerome G. Little, the first African-American President of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors.
For fifty-plus years, the town of Sumner and the surrounding area tried to ignore the memory of Emmett Till with the hope that the incident would fade. But instead of fading, the memory and importance of Emmett Till grew.
In 2006, Supervisor Little organized the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. The ETMC, made up of a multi-racial group of citizens, realized that in order to properly remember and honor Emmett Till, they needed to first break the silence and take responsibility for their role in the injustice. In 2007, the ETMC offered a formal apology and delivered the apology to the Till Family in a public ceremony in front of the Sumner Courthouse.
The ETMC knew that the apology would be meaningless without action. Over eight years, the organization worked across racial lines to restore the Sumner Courthouse back to the its condition during the 1955 trial of Emmett Till’s murderers and to create an Emmett Till museum to live out the first line of the apology, which reads, "Racial Reconciliation begins by telling the truth."
Today, the commission is now the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which exists to tell the story of the Emmett Till tragedy and to point a way towards racial healing. Specifically, the center uses art, storytelling, historic preservation and public education to help process past pain and to imagine new ways of moving forward.
History of the Courthouse
The Interpretive Center is located directly across the street from the the Second-District Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, MS. This courthouse hosted the trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. The trial was described by journalist David Halberstam as “the first great media event of the civil rights movement.”
From September 19-23, 1955, thousands of people descended on the 550-person town of Sumner. The second-story courtroom reportedly reached ninety degrees as it filled to capacity. After the seats were taken, white onlookers perched themselves on windowsills or leaned against the walls. A strictly segregated space, the back two rows of seats were reserved for African Americans and a card table was set up for the black press, African-American dignitaries, and the Till family.
On the first day of the trial, members of the black press teamed up with NAACP Field Secretaries Medgar Evers and Ruby Hurley to search for witnesses. By the second day of the trial, Evers, Hurley, and journalists James Hicks, L. Alex Wilson, and Simeon Booker had located enough witnesses that Judge Curtis Swango was forced to call a recess, allowing the authorities to investigate these new leads.
On the third day of the trial, Till’s uncle Moses Wright braved death threats and took the stand to share the story of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant forcing their way into his home to abduct Till. Asked if he could identify a perpetrator, he held out his arm, pointed directly at Milam, and said, “There he is.”
The next day, three of the witnesses discovered by Evers, Hurley, and the journalists testified that they saw Till in the presence of J. W. Milam on the morning he was murdered. Unfortunately, neither the courage of Moses Wright nor the testimony of eyewitnesses was sufficient to move the jury. On September 23, the fifth and final day of the trial, they deliberated for only 67 minutes before voting to acquit both Milam and Bryant. One juror told Time magazine, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
Today, the courthouse stands in the same architectural state as it was during the 1955 trial, thanks to our work to restore the building to its initial condition. Our center provides historical interpretation and tours of the courthouse as well as nearby historical sites related to the Emmett Till tragedy.