By: Dave Tell
On September 19, 1955, at 9:25 am, the trial of J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till opened in this courthouse.
It was a sensational, five-day trial. For the first time in history, the northern press descended on a Mississippi trial. To this day, locals recall the spectacle that was the Till trial: the microphones, the cameras, the reporters, and the stifling heat of the second-floor courtroom. With approximately 400 people crowded into the small space (sitting in aisles and hanging out of windows), temperatures inside exceeded ninety degrees. For all these reasons, celebrated journalist David Halberstam called the trial “the first great media event of the civil rights movement.”
The trial lasted a scant five days. It would have been even shorter, had the black press not managed to secure an extended recess on the third day of the trial. Baltimore Afro-American reporter James Hicks and Mound Bayou’s Dr. T. R. M. Howard rounded up five witnesses that claimed (correctly) that Till was beaten (and possibly killed) by J. W. Milam and others in a barn outside of Drew, MS. Drew was 20 miles southwest, in Sunflower County, and, if the witnesses were correct, the trial would have to be moved to the neighboring county. Judge Curtis Swango called a recess to investigate the possibility. In the end, the witnesses were not believed and the trial was not moved.
On Friday, September 23, the all-white jury took only 67 minutes to deliberate before returning a verdict of not guilty. It was widely reported that the only reason it took them as long as it did was that they drank some Cokes in order to make it look as if they were struggling with the decision.
The Cokes notwithstanding, the jury did not struggle. They believed (or at least said they did) the testimony of Sheriff H. C. Strider, who argued that the body could not be positively identified as Emmett Till. The body was so badly decomposed by the time it was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River, Strider argued, that the race of the body could not be determined. This despite the fact that when, on August 31, Strider recovered the body from the river, he immediately had it sent to Chester Miller’s Century Burial Funeral Home—the black funeral home in Greenwood.
On July 1, 1972, the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors announced that the Courthouse in Sumner would be renovated by Yazoo City architect Jack DeCell. In the name of modernization, and at the cost of $235,000, the chairs were replaced with pews, the sash windows were replaced with solid glass, interior walls were added to the courtroom to shrink the space, and the courtroom was painted purple. In the course of the renovation, the cotton-gin fan that had been secured to Till’s neck with barbed wire, and which had sat in the basement of the courthouse since 1955, was lost.
In 2005, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission was formed for the express purpose of renovating the courthouse. Beginning in 2007 and completed in 2014, Belinda Stewart Architects of Eupora, MS restored the courthouse to its 1955 condition.