Tallahatchie – People/Persons

Hale, Johnnie: Oral History

Johnnie Hale grew up in Sumner, Mississippi. He remembers Emmett Till’s murder and the boy’s mother’s request for an open-casket. Hale later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where race relations were not much better than they had been in Sumner. He had trouble finding a job and witnessed the infamous race riots. He believes it is vital that young people know about black history so as not to repeat the past.

Mr. Hale’s oral history, part one:

Tallahatchie County – Interview with Johnnie Hale 01 from Winter Institute on Vimeo.

Part one of Mr. Hale’s oral history can also be viewed here.

Willis, Larry: Oral History

A Delta native, Larry Willis talks about his involvement with the civil rights movement and the Emmett Till murder. He explains the happenings associated with the trial such as how people would react when someone black would try to share an opinion or attend the trial. Willis also talks about his opinions on the reopening of the Emmett Till case as well as his opinions on some elected officials.

Mr. Willis’s oral history, part one:

Tallahatchie County – Interview with Larry Willis 01 from Winter Institute on Vimeo.

Part one of his oral history can also be viewed here.

Pearson, Betty: Oral History

Betty Pearson discusses growing up in Clarksdale, MS. She describes the impact her family had on her attitude towards race relations, an early experience that impacted her worldview, and growing up in a segregated society. She also talks about being present at the Emmett Till trial and being around Neshoba County during the Philadelphia murders.

Part 1 of 24 of Betty Pearson’s interview:

Tallahatchie County – Interview with Betty Pearson 01 from Winter Institute on Vimeo.

Part 1 of 24 of the interview can also be found here.

Till, Emmett

Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was an African-American teenager from Chicago, Illinois, who was brutally lynched near the small town of Drew in Sunflower County, Mississippi. His murder was one of the key events that led to the birth of the civil rights movement.

In the summer of 1955, he left Chicago to visit his great uncle Moses Wright who lived in the small town of Money, Mississippi. Located in the Mississippi Delta, Till’s trip was taking him to a region where racially motivated murders were not unfamiliar. It has been estimated by some civil rights leaders that thousands of people have been lynched in this area. Racial tensions in the region were rising even higher after the United States Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in schools.

Till arrived on August 21, 1955. On August 24, he joined other teenagers as they went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to get some refreshments. The market was owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, and primarily served black sharecroppers and their families. While in the store, it is alleged that Till whistled at, or flirted with, Carolyn Bryant. Emmett Till was known to have a speech impediment, and in order to speak clearly he would whistle softly before speaking. This action, explicit or not, greatly angered her and her husband who, along with his half-brother J.W. Milam, decided to “teach the boy a lesson.”

On August 28, at around 2:30 p.m., Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home. According to witnesses, they drove him to a weathered plantation shed in neighboring Sunflower County where they brutally beat him until he was unrecognizable. One of his eyes was gouged out and he was shot with a .45 caliber pistol. Then the pair, using barbed wire, attached a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan around Till’s neck to weigh his body down. His body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River near the small town of Glendora, MS. The boy’s corpse was found several days later, disfigured and decomposing in the Tallahatchie River. The boy’s body was so savagely beaten that Moses Wright could identify the body only by an initialed ring which had belonged to Emmett’s father, Louis Till.

J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant were arrested on August 29 after spending the night with relatives living in Ruleville, MS, only several miles away from where the murder actually took place. At first, both men admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle’s home but claimed they released him the same night.

The trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant began on September 19, 1955, at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in the city of Sumner. Dozens of reporters from around the country had invaded the tiny Delta town. There would be no black jurors because in a county where nearly 65 per cent of the 32,000 residents were black, there was not a single registered black voter. On September 23, the jury, made up of 12 white males, acquitted both defendants. Deliberations took just 67 minutes; one juror said they took a “soda break” to stretch the time to over an hour. This verdict outraged people around the globe and was an integral piece in the birth of the civil rights movement.

Many of the people who would later be a part of the civil rights movement considered themselves to be part of the “Emmett Till Generation.”

In 2007, The Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a multiracial group of citizens created by the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, held a memorial service for Emmett Till. At the memorial, members of the commission presented a “Call for Justice” which included an apology to Emmett Till’s family and a call for truth and justice in Tallahatchie County and in Mississippi. The commission also presented the first of a series of historical markers in the county to explain the history of Emmett Till’s murder.

Videos that mention Emmett Till:

Videos about Emmett Till can also be viewed here.

Melton, Clinton

The September 1955 acquittal of JW Milam and Roy Bryant for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till fueled further racial violence. Clinton Melton was a proud black man who was gunned down here 2 1/2 months later by Milam’s friend Elmer Kimbel, allegedly over a dispute about filling up a gas tank. On the day before Kimbel’s trial in Sumner, Melton’s widow, Beulah, was apparently forced off the road near Glendora and drowned in Black Bayou, leaving five children orphaned. Kimbel was acquitted of Clinton Melton’s murder.



Little, Jerome G.: Oral History

JEROME G. LITTLE was born in 1952 in Sumner, Mississippi. After serving in the Marine Corps from 1974 to 1977, he pushed for water rights for his family and community members of the Goose Pond subdivision in Webb. Mr. Little was a part of the “Magnificent Seven,” a group of black men who had to sue Tallahatchie County several times in order to hold political positions. The seven men held countywide boycotts of stores and schools in cooperation with the county and state NAACP. In 1994, Mr. Little and Bobby Banks became the first African Americans to serve on the County Board of Supervisors. In 1996 he was elected vice-president of the Board, and in 2000 he was elected President. In 2006 he helped form the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. Mr. Little passed away on December 13, 2011.

In his oral history interview, he talks about his life and his time in political offices.

Interview with Jerome Little, part 1 of 24:

Tallahatchie County – Interview with Jerome Little 01 from Winter Institute on Vimeo.

Part 1 of 24 of these videos can also be viewed here.



Martin, Doroth M.

DOROTHY M. MARTIN was born in Tallahatchie County on June 24, 1952. She attended Northwest Mississippi Junior College and graduated from Delta State University. She served as a deputy clerk in the county tax assessor’s office from January 1976 until October 1997. Mrs. Martin was elected Tallahatchie County Tax Assessor and Collector in November 1997 to fill an unexpired term, and re-elected in 1999, 2003 and 2007.



Thomas, Johnny B.

JOHNNY B. THOMAS, born on November 30, 1953, is a native of Glendora and is currently the town’s mayor. He attended Mississippi Valley State University and, in the 1970s, became a political and civil rights activist. He has the distinction of being elected Tallahatchie County’s first African American County Supervisor, first African American Constable (1975), Alderman (1980), and the second African American mayor (1982). He is also president of the Tallahatchie County Branch of the NAACP.



Williams, Roosevelt

ROOSEVELT WILLIAMS was the first African American elected to the Tallahatchie County School Board of Trustee. He was elected in 1971 and served until 1991.



Wilchie, John

JOHN WILCHIE was born in Glendora, Mississippi. In 1979 he was appointed to carry out the remaining term of Justice Court Judge, and the following year he was elected the first African American Justice Court Judge in Tallahatchie County. He attended Mississippi Valley State University, as well as the University of Mississippi Judicial College. In 2004, he helped start the Sharkey-Hampton Lake Volunteer Fire Department, for which he serves as Fire Captain.