Sumner, Miss, belongs to the Deeper Souththe one without its own memories of ante-bellum order or graciousness.
Sumner was snake-infested swamp until it was cleared for cotton in 1873. Like many another U.S. town, it was built around a courthouse, and its pioneers brought into the wilderness a respect for Anglo-American law. But they also brought the hatreds and half-digested lessons of Reconstruction years and a socio-economic system that would constantly conflict with the tradition of Anglo-American justice as those traditions lived and evolved among the vast majority of their countrymen.
This socio-economic system (in its crudest examples somewhat worse than slavery for all concerned) called for a mass base of cheap Negro labor so thoroughly ruled by a dominant white minority that equal contact in church, social life or politics between the races was held to be impossible.
Last week, in Sumner's hot and hideous courthouse, the white community of Tallahatchie County came into conflict with the tradition of the law in the person of Circuit Judge Curtis M. Swango. In a way, both won. The immediate and overt victory went to the community. The law's victory was that so much of it survived in the face of blind hatred.
Home & the River. The case concerned Emmett Louis Till, 14, who was sent by his mother, a Government office worker ($3,900 a year) in Chicago, on a family visit to her home town with her uncle, Mose Wright, 64, a sharecropper and sometime preacher. One day a cousin drove him and some other Negro youths to the nearby hamlet of Money (pop. 75) to buy 2¢ worth of bubble gum. On leaving, his friends later said, Till rolled his eyes and whistled lewdly at a white woman in the grocery, Mrs. Carolyn Bryant, 21. Later two white men took Emmett Till away at gunpoint.
Three days afterward, a corpse was found in the muddy Tallahatchie River. The body was swollen and decomposing, the skull smashed by blows and pierced by a bullet, and a heavy cotton-gin fan was lashed to the neck. Mose Wright said the body was that of his nephew. To the surprise of many Northerners, the Tallahatchie County grand jury promptly indicted two white men for murder: Roy Bryant, 24, storekeeper and ex-paratrooper, husband of the insulted woman; and his half brother, J. W. Milam, 36.
In the stifling courtroom heat, Judge Swango permitted shirtsleeved informality, but he permitted no looseness with the law. The jurors were carefully questioned; many who disclosed some obvious hint of prejudice were excluded.
Asked to identify the men who took Emmett Till from his cabin, Mose Wright stood up and pointed a gnarled finger straight at Milam, then at Roy Bryant. The sheriff of neighboring Leflore County related that Bryant and Milam admitted taking Emmett Till, but claimed that they later let him go when they learned he was the wrong boy. The boy's mother testified that the body from the river was her son; on his finger was his dead father's ring, with the initials L.T. (Louis Till). She had cautioned him about Tallahatchie County. She told him "to be very careful ... to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees." She explained: "Living in Chicago, he didn't know."