MDAH Historical Marker Outside the Sumner Courthouse

By: Dave Tell

On October 2, 2007, Jerome Little unveiled the state of Mississippi’s only official roadside marker commemorating the death of Emmett Till.
The occasion was a widely publicized outdoor ceremony on Sumner Square. The event was attended by over 400 people. Schoolchildren came in by the busload. Till family members were met at the county line and escorted to the square by the local police force. Dignitaries such as former Governor William Winter and senator David Jordan took their place on a beautiful decorated stage in front of the courthouse.

The ceremony was organized by the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC). The ETMC had been founded the year before by Jerome Little for the dual purposes of restoring the courthouse and pursuing racial reconciliation. While both of these purposes were on display at the ceremony, the latter took center stage. The highlight of the event was ETMC co-chairs Betty Pearson and Robert Grayson reading a resolution drafted by Susan Glisson of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and signed by every member of the ETMC. The Resolution concluded: “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.”

Following the reading of the resolution, Jerome Little pulled a sheet off this marker and formally unveiled it in front of the Till family and the 400 congregants. The original prose submitted by the ETMC to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History is significantly different than the prose that now appears on the sign. The original prose tells of Till’s mother testifying in the trial and it repeated a myth that Till uncle, Moses Wright, spoke in broken English when he identified J. W. Milam as the one who abducted Till. Wright, the myth runs, pointed at Milam and exclaimed “Dar He” (rather than “there he is”). There is little evidence to support this myth.

Much like the finalized prose that now appears on the sign, the original draft also implied that the article in LOOK magazine was a trustworthy “confession.” There is a reason for this. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History requires anyone who proposes a roadside marker to provide historical documentation attesting to the truth of the prose. The ETMC submitted a Florida State MA thesis written by Hugh Whitaker called “A Case Study in Southern Justice.” The thesis is a remarkable document for many reasons. Whitaker was one of the earliest Till scholars and his work remains a touchstone to this day. It does, however, have one significant weakness. Whitaker interviewed the author of the LOOK “confession” William Bradford Huie and relied extensively on the (false) information Huie provided. With Whitaker as their source, it is no wonder that the ETMC gave public credence to the Huie “confession.”

The marker was created by Sewah Studios in Marietta, OH. The company specializes in cast aluminum historical markers and uses the slogan “History on a Stick.” It cost $1,660 and was the first of nine signs posted by the ETMC. The remaining eight signs are purple in color and were not vetted by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.