By: Davis Houck
Of the hundreds of white Mississippians who managed to find a seat for the murder trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, two were rather conspicuous. Betty Pearson was a 32-year-old married Mississippian who’d grown up in Webb, just south of Sumner, and who’d attended the University of Mississippi. The daughter and wife of local plantation owners, Pearson’s progressive views about race were certainly unusual for the place and time. So, too, were the sentiments held by her close friend who accompanied Pearson to the trial, Florence Mars. From the racial cauldron of Philadelphia, seat of Neshoba County and site of the lynching of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner in 1964, Mars also brought along her camera. The two friends had secured press passes from Betty’s husband’s uncle, William Simpson, who owned and operated the Sumner Sentinel weekly newspaper.
Little could Pearson have known, but her experiences as a trial spectator in 1955 informed her actions nearly 50 years later. When recently elected Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors President Jerome Little formed the Emmett Till Memorial Commission in 2005, Pearson facilitated the group’s mission among white citizens of the county. That mission, to bring about racial harmony among local whites and blacks, as well as to secure government funding to renovate the Sumner courthouse to its original condition in 1955, remains a work in progress even as a beautifully renovated courthouse opened in March 2015. By nearly all accounts, Pearson’s steadfast work on the Memorial Commission proved vital in bringing it together for a very important moment in 2007: a formal “apology” offered to the Till family read on the Sumner square. That apology, more than 50 years in the making, was immediately accepted by relatives of Emmett Till; it has served as an important act of public forgiveness in a case that remains contentious among Mississippi whites and blacks.
Pearson, along with her husband Bill, moved from Sumner to Davis, California in 2009 to be closer to their daughter. As of this writing, the spry 93-year-old Pearson continues her life of activism. Her close friend, Florence Mars, passed away in April 2006. Her memoir, Witness in Philadelphia, remains an important account of the infamous Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner lynching, and the local climate that gave rise to them. Mars’ remarkable photographs from the Till trial are available for viewing at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.