By: Dave Tell
The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi has played a major role in Emmett Till commemoration in the twenty-first century.
The Institute was established by former Ole’ Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat in August of 1999. In March of the previous year, President Clinton’s Initiative on Race held an event on the Ole’ Miss campus. The event was headlined by an address from Duke University’s Dr. John Hope Franklin and it was an unblemished success. It was the only such event held in the South, the President’s Advisory Board lauded it as the best event of the entire year, and it was the first time that racial matters at Ole’ Miss received flattering treatment in the New York Times. The creation of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation was Chancellor Khayat’s attempt to conserve and make permanent the momentum for racial justice created by President Clinton’s event.
Since August of 1999, one of the pillars of the Institute’s work has been crafting public apologies, or what Institute Director Susan Glisson calls “rituals of atonement.” Glisson was instrumental in convincing Chancellor Khayat to apologize for the treatment of James Meredith, she helped the town of Newton apologize to the family of Medgar Evers, and she was integral to the work of citizens in Philadelphia, Mississippi when they crafted a call for justice regarding the then-unpunished murders three civil rights activists in 1964.
It was Glisson’s work in Philadelphia that first caught Jerome Little’s attention. He admired what she had been able to accomplish there, and asked her if she would provide formal guidance for the Emmett Till Memorial Commission (ETMC). Unsurprisingly, one of the ETMC’s first moves under her leadership was to craft its own “ritual of atonement.” By May of 2007, Glisson had drafted a strongly worded, seven-paragraph statement. Her draft stirred controversy on the ETMC. Near the end of the statement, it “apologized” for the murder of Emmett Till. This rubbed one member of the ETMC the wrong way. Why should the ETMC apologize, he reasoned, for an event in which none of its members participated. In the end, the word “apologize” was replaced and every member of the ETMC signed the document. ETMC co-chairs Betty Pearson and Robert Grayson read the statement at a well-publicized event on Sumner Square on October 2, 2007. It 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.”
In recent years, Glisson’s direct involvement with the ETMC has waned. But her imprint (and that of the William Winter Institute) on the memory of Emmett Till has been profound. Without her involvement, the ETMC would have likely never have issued a “ritual of atonement” and the Till family, which traveled to Mississippi from Chicago to hear the statement read in person, would never have had a chance to say, in the words of Till cousin Simeon Wright, “I accept your apology. . . We want to thank you all for what you are doing here.”