The Secret Lives of Parks

Telling the Truth

Episode Summary

The brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement. Could a new national park site preserving his story help to bring us closer to understanding and justice?

Episode Notes

This week marks 67 years since the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, a miscarriage of justice that focused the attention of the world on the tiny town of Sumner, Mississippi, galvanized international outrage and grief, and sparked leaders of the Civil Rights Movement to act. Today, advocates want to see the courthouse where the trial took place preserved as a national park site and want to continue to use the story of the Till tragedy as a way to facilitate conversations around race and racism and further healing in the community and beyond.

Host Jennifer Errick features insights from Alan Spears, NPCA Senior Director of Cultural Resources; Benjamin Saulsberry, Public Engagement and Museum Education Director for the Emmett Till Interpretive Center; and Dr. Percy Washington, educator and pastor of the Sweet Canaan Church of God in Christ, on the history of this shocking hate crime, what the culture was like in Mississippi before and after the tragedy, and how advocates now are preserving Till’s story and using it to work toward truth and justice.

This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Kyle Groetzinger. Additional assets by Eric Barese and Jeff Taylor.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about the Emmett Till Interpretive Center at

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 11
Telling the Truth

Jennifer Errick: Residents of the Mississippi Delta have lived for decades in the shadow of one of the country's most shocking hate crimes, the kidnapping and brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955.

Could a national park site help people in the region and beyond confront this tragic history and have the kinds of conversations on racism that can bring us closer to understanding and justice?

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.

Please note that this episode contains descriptions of violence and racism.


The Tallahatchie County Courthouse is a two-story brick building in the center of Sumner, Mississippi, a rural Delta town with a population of under 300 people. Originally built in 1902, this distinctive Romanesque structure sits at the heart of a quiet town square, surrounded by miles of winding country roads.

It's not a place that most of us would happen on by accident. It's a place it takes a journey to reach, a long bucolic trip through tree-lined fields and wide-open skies with little but silos and farm equipment here and there to mark the path.

Many people make this pilgrimage to Sumner because of the role this courthouse played after the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, a heinous act of violence that forced the country to confront the brutal reality of racism.

Alan Spears: It's a tragic story, but it's one of the most significant stories in U.S. history.

Jennifer Errick: That's Alan Spears, Senior Director of Cultural Resources for the National Parks Conservation Association. Spears is working closely with a committed group of local and national partners, including members of the Till family, to advocate for a national park site honoring Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. This courthouse is one of the key places that Spears and others hope the National Park Service will preserve as part of a future park site.

Alan Spears: There's actually reason why we want this in the hands of the National Park Service. This is an agency that does a really masterful job of commemorating and interpreting really tough and challenging stories.

Jennifer Errick: Although the Emmett Till story is familiar to most Americans, it's one that continues to weigh heavily on our collective conscience.

Emmett Till was an African American boy from Chicago, who was barely 14 when he traveled to visit his cousins and his great uncle Mose Wright in the cotton milling town of Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Till entered a grocery store and bought a pack of gum from a young white shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant. Bryant later claimed that Till made a suggestive remark and whistled at her. Witness accounts vary, but many people familiar with the Till story have disputed Bryant's version of events. What actually happened at the store will never be fully known.

What we do know is that several days later Till was kidnapped at gunpoint from his great uncle's home by Bryant's husband, Roy and Roy's half-brother, J.W. Milam. Till was savagely tortured for hours, mutilated and shot, tied with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and drowned in the Tallahatchie River. If it hadn't been for an African American teenager fishing in the river several days later who happened on the body, Till might never have been found.

Alan Spears: There was, and I'm going to put this in air quotes, the “hope” that these white men would simply do what had been done throughout the south. They would “teach him a lesson.” They would beat him up a little bit. They might whip the boy, but they would return him at some point in time, very much alive. That didn't happen.

Jennifer Errick: This courthouse in Sumner is where Till's murderers were tried and acquitted barely a month after the gruesome crime took place. It's also the site where Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, faced the men who killed her son and risked her own safety to testify against them, galvanizing international outrage and grief and beginning her lifelong quest to find justice for her son. Here again is Alan Spears.

Alan Spears: It took an all-white, all-male jury, less than 80 minutes, maybe about 70, 75 minutes, to find the defendants not guilty. It was an egregious miscarriage of justice that took place in that courthouse, and an egregious miscarriage of human feeling that took place in Mississippi, that there was not any regard really for the life and the loss of a young teenager.

Jennifer Errick: This week, mark 67 years since the trial of Till's murderers took place, thrusting the attention of the world on this tiny town and ultimately mobilizing leaders such as Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to act, sparking the Civil Rights Movement as we know it.


Benjamin Saulsberry: Well, there are a number of reasons why I personally believe that this particular space should be preserved as a national park site. I think one of the primary reasons is because when we think about the Emmett Till tragedy and we think about the environment that existed that would give way to said tragedy, it's very telling of the American narrative. And although it's a very uncomfortable and hard reality concerning race and racism, it's imperative to have spaces that reflect that reality.

Jennifer Errick: That's Benjamin Saulsberry, Public Engagement and Museum Education Director for the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, an advocacy and education group located in Sumner directly across the street from the Tallahatchie County Courthouse. The center's mission is to use Till's story to further racial healing. For years, Saulsberry has helped people to better understand how an injustice like this could have happened, and he's used this history as a way to facilitate honest conversations about racism.

Benjamin Saulsberry: When we think about truth and when we think about the importance of positioning people to come to a place of understanding, sometimes that calls for the preservation or the uplifting of parts of a narrative that are tragic, or that are very hard to embrace. Nonetheless, it's important as a society that we give appropriate light to the things that have happened in places like this, because these stories make up our nation and make up our society.

Jennifer Errick: Saulsberry is one of many people who believe that giving light in this way can open a path to deeper understanding. In fact, his organization was created with this purpose in mind. For decades, many in the community wanted to ignore the story of Emmett Till, but being silent, didn't make it go away. The interpretive center was formed as a public wing of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, a community initiative that brought Black and white citizens of the county together starting in 2005 to discuss what racial reconciliation could look like.

Benjamin Saulsberry: That was unprecedented for folks in Tallahatchie County to have cease and citizens come together and talk about race and racism was uncharted territory.

Jennifer Errick: One of the first steps the Memorial Commission took as a result of those conversations was to issue a formal apology to the Till family for the role the county played in the tragedy. The apology opened with a collective acknowledgement that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.” Saulsberry explains how essential this apology was in laying the groundwork for conversations to follow, including the work he does now for the Interpretive Center.

Benjamin Saulsberry: I believe that the commission understood that we really can't talk about commemoration without talking about everything. That'd be disrespectful to start looking at commemorative works concerning Emmett Till and others. But we can't even expect that in this courtroom, we allowed the murderers of Emmett Till to get away. We allowed for a society to exist that cause for the murder of a child for whistling at a white woman. I think the early commission and other folks felt like it would've been extremely disrespectful to the memory of Emmett and his mother and others to then place markers and/or talk about progress, when we ourselves hadn't, at that time, even acknowledged publicly the fact that we allowed the murderers of Emmett Till to get away.

Jennifer Errick: Another action the commission took to shed light on the county's history, rather than shrink from it, was to organize multi-year renovations to restore the Tallahatchie County Courthouse to its 1955 appearance. As a result, visitors to the building today can have a remarkably authentic sense of what the courtroom looked and felt like during the trial of Till's murderers. This act of preservation was an important part of the truth telling at the heart of the interpretive center's mission.

Benjamin Saulsberry: The purpose and reasoning around preservation isn't necessarily for this to be a tourist attraction, it's a part of us continuing to tell a very accurate story. And the hopes that in the midst of being in a place like this, you then start asking yourself very honest questions about not just a Sumner or not just Mississippi, but wherever you are.

Jennifer Errick: A lifetime resident of the area, Saulsberry grew up just a mile from the courthouse and knows what it's like to live with this history in his backyard.

Benjamin Saulsberry: For really the whole of my life, I've always cared about the people of this community. When we think about the Emmett Till tragedy and we think about the environment that existed, that would give way to it. Thankfully, we don't deal with it to the extent that Emmett or Mamie Till or Mose Wright did, but there's still a lot of underpinnings when we think about race and racism and wanting to find a way to bring that attention or bring that awareness to other people that has always been important to me.

Jennifer Errick: Although the Till story played a major role in the civil rights movement, and people think of that time period as one of widespread victories for racial equity. Saulsberry explains that in Tallahatchie County, it took much longer for people to see the kinds of progress that other parts of the country did.

Benjamin Saulsberry: When we think about civil rights movement, of course, we think about the 50s and we think about the marches and the speeches, and we think about the 60s and more speeches and demonstrations and the passing of legislations and things of that nature. But this was a community that didn't even begin to see that until the 90s.

Jennifer Errick: The founder of the Emmett Till Memorial Commission, the late civil rights leader Jerome G. Little, was a major part of the county's fight for racial justice. Little was a county citizen who became interested in politics after getting involved in water rights issues in his neighborhood. He had to sue the all-white county government multiple times to be able to run for office and to take office after legally winning a seat on the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors. He and fellow elected official Bobby Banks ultimately prevailed and became the first two African Americans to serve on the Board of Supervisors. This happened in 1994, 3 decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Benjamin Saulsberry: That is this community's story, but this ain't the only community that has stories like that. One of the things that I constantly think about is the fact that we're not as far removed from history as I think sometimes we tell ourselves. When you look at life on a day to day, that seems like a very long time ago. But then when you look at your own family, you have a mother or a father or a cousin or an aunt or a relative that grew up in '55 or the 60s. And so, we're not that far removed from history. The decisions we make will have lasting ramifications on generations to come.


Jennifer Errick: Dr. Percy Washington is proof that the Till story is not as far in the past as it might seem. Dr. Washington is a longtime educator, a former university administrator, and a pastor at the Sweet Canaan Church of God and Christ in Lexington, Mississippi, a different branch of the same church that the Till family belonged to. Washington was born in the Mississippi Delta in 1952, just three years before Till's murder., and he grew up living under the same discriminatory laws that governed Mississippi at that time. Though he lived just a few miles from Money, Mississippi, as a child, it took a surprisingly long time for him to learn about Emmett Till's story.

Dr. Percy Washington: It was not talked about. I stumbled up on the story of Emmett Till really as a teenager. And even today in these parts, it is that thing, well, let's talk about it, let's just get along kind of attitude, yet the way the system designed itself is to still control people behavior, their progress, and limit their levels of success.

Jennifer Errick: Washington recalls how Black parents and relatives would teach their children, especially boys, how to act in public to try to protect them from the kind of violence that Till suffered. Washington, who grew up with this conditioning from the adults around him, relates to Till's cousins who understood the danger of Till's exchange with Carolyn Bryant in a way Till simply could not have when he entered the grocery store in Money that day.

Dr. Percy Washington: When you had boys growing up, there were parents, older people, who would behave certain ways and say things certain ways that would give the message of how one should respond as a means of survival at whatever age, any age. Emmett didn't know that.

Jennifer Errick: The laws, written and unwritten, that dictated these behaviors were known as Black codes. From the end of the Civil War up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whites imposed these laws to maintain economic and social control over Blacks after the abolition of slavery. In the South, vagrancy laws were often used as a tool to force Black families into exploitative work arrangements, binding them into annual contracts with white land owners because it was illegal for a Black person to be unemployed. Both Emmett Till's great-uncle and Washington's father were part of this system, working as sharecroppers in Mississippi's cotton fields. Washington recalls being out in those fields as a very young child putting cotton in his mother's bucket, in a cycle it took years for his father to get out of.

Dr. Percy Washington: The law was that Blacks could not question anything about whites’ behavior. So Blacks had no basis to keep figures of how much cotton they sold and the figures for how much money they helped the owner make for that year. So, at the end of the year, whatever the owner said was the results, that was the result of it. And so, many times they say, "Well, you almost came close, you still owe us $100, and so next year we're going to have a better crop." So you always were in debt for the most part. It was a legal way of enforcing slavery without calling it slavery.

Jennifer Errick: In Mississippi, Black codes affected the most basic interpersonal behavior as well. A Black person had to step off the sidewalk if a white person approached or pull their car over if a white person was on the same road. A Black person wasn't allowed to look a white man in the eye, and it was against the law for a Black person to even look in a white woman's direction.

I asked Dr. Washington how it was even possible to obey such a law.

Dr. Percy Washington: It was what you did. It was survival. Even now, if you come to Mississippi, many African Americans will not look at you eye to eye while they're talking to you. That’s just been passed down generation to generation.

Jennifer Errick: Emmett Till may not have fully understood these codes, even though his mother gave him extensive instructions on how to behave before he left for Mississippi. They weren't ingrained in his understanding of the world the way they were to his cousins. Who would want a boy to grow up with that kind of understanding of the world if he could be spared it?

One of the parts of Till's story that has long troubled Washington is the way people have questioned the details of what happened at the grocery store in Money — whether Till whistled at Bryant, what he might have said to her — instead of the system of injustice that led to the exchange and its aftermath.

Dr. Percy Washington: Well, one of the things that I wish would happen is that we get to tell the real Emmett Till story. Because one thing that happens, people say, "Have you heard the story Emmett Till?" And if they say, yes, they say, "Well, yeah. Well, he’s the one that flirted with this white lady." Well, the story is so much bigger than that. It has to do with the Constitution of the United States. It has to do with the Black codes and humanity against humanity. And the list just goes on and on and on. If we can change that now, it'll be worth whatever I can do toward getting that message out there.

Jennifer Errick: Washington also emphasizes that Emmett Till represents many other people who were brutalized and killed or who relocated out of fear and whose identities were hidden to keep other family members safe.

Dr. Percy Washington: There are many, many Emmett Till stories out there. There are a lot of people who left running for their lives. Some made it, some didn't. They would go to another area and change their names. The system was, any person could question you who you were related to in terms of employment and that kind of thing, and if you couldn't give them a reasonable answer, you got into that vagrancy law system.

Jennifer Errick: Washington mentions a member of his own family, his father's brother, who disappeared in this way, Washington knows his uncle's name and even confirmed it using an ancestry service. But he and other members of his family simply don't know what happened to him.

Dr. Percy Washington: As bad as it is, there were many situations of survival that people wouldn't talk about it, regardless of how they felt about it. And even if a person were lynched, killed, nobody could talk about it because that was their way of surviving. So they had to just internalize that and figure out how to make it day by day knowing what the facts of their lives were.

Jennifer Errick: One of the things I asked Dr. Washington is whether he feels remembering and telling these stories can offer a way to heal if more people are able to understand what he and so many others have gone through.

Dr. Percy Washington: In order to heal, one must have a desire to heal. One has to decide, "Look, I want to get better. I want to feel better." Sometimes a kid get hurt, goes to the doctor. Sometimes in order for the doctor to do what the doctor needs to do, sometimes the doctor causes even more pain. But going through that pain, sets the stage now for the healing process. For people who decide that we don't want to talk about it, we don't want to address this, who think that that is going solve it, they're fooling themselves.


Jennifer Errick: One of the volunteer efforts Washington makes time for is to clear the grave site in Money, Mississippi where state officials had originally planned to rush a burial of Emmett Till's body to cover up the story. Before he could be buried, his mother learned of this plan and went to heroic lengths to have the body return to her in Chicago instead. The empty grave site in Money is an integral part of the Till story and it had become overgrown. Washington felt a calling to tend to it.

I was fortunate to see this grave site at Washington's urging when I visited both Sumner and Money for the first time last spring. He and Benjamin Saulsberry of the interpretive center graciously took me first to the Bryant grocery store, which is now an unstable ruin to see from a distance the site where the exchange between Till and Bryant happened.

From there, Washington offered to show me the remains of the church where Till's great-uncle, Mose Wright had preached and where that first grave site was dug for Emmett Till, a place where the story could have ended and been hushed like so many others, if not, for the courage of Mamie Till-Mobley.

On our way to the remains of Mose Wright's church, Dr. Washington stopped his car abruptly in the middle of a desolate country road. There seemed to be no one for miles around us and I initially thought we were lost, but of course we weren't lost. Washington has known the Mississippi Delta deeply for seven decades.

Washington got out of the car and pointed to a forested stretch along the side of the road, explaining that this was the place where Emmett Till had been taken. At first, all I could see were trees. Then as I stepped onto the shoulder and looked more closely, I could make out a brick chimney rising from the undergrowth, and beside it, a simple set of stairs in the brush.

These are the last traces of the home of Mose and Elizabeth Wright, which was destroyed by a tornado in the 1970s. That a place of such significance is hidden here on the side of the road, a place where something unthinkable happened that literally changed the course of history. It surprised me.

It really hit home for me, that it has taken the bravery of so many people and the persistent work of passionate advocates like Washington and Saulsberry to keep places like these in our collective memory and to keep them in view so that people can continue to learn from them.


Back at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, Saulsberry and other members of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center continue to make this history accessible to audiences of all ages. The courthouse is one of a number of sites that NPCA supports preserving as part of a national park honoring the Till family. The historic district of Mound Bayou, an independent Black community, where Mamie Till-Mobley and members of the Black press corps took refuge during the trial has multiple connections to the Till story and a fascinating history worthy of preservation and broader public recognition.

The part of the Tallahatchie River where Till's body was discovered, a place called Graball Landing is another potential site NPCA supports considering as part of a larger park site. In addition to the courthouse and other important sites in the Delta, NPCA also strongly supports preserving sites in the Chicago area, including the Roberts Temple Church of God and Christ where Emmett Till's funeral was held. Till's family home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of the city and Emmett Till's burial site at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

Ultimately, it's up to the National Park Service to determine which places meet its criteria and are feasible to include. Though there's broad community support to see the story recognized and uplifted through the agency's work. Saulsberry has had the privilege of meeting both Congressman Bennie Thompson and interior secretary Deb Haaland through his role at the interpretive center, as well as Simeon Wright, one of Emmett Till's cousins, who Saulsberry describes as a hero.

Benjamin Saulsberry: It’s always great to have people in this space, period. But to have your elected officials, those that represent you on a relatively large scale, to stop and not just get a photo op, but really hear community members thoughts and hopes and feelings around what it means to have a space like this preserved — very few things are more rewarding than that.

Jennifer Errick: One of Saulsberry's favorite experiences involved meeting a much younger visitor at a talk he gave earlier this year.

Benjamin Saulsberry: We had a group of young students. And when I say young, I mean, they were, like, daycare students who came. And at the end of the talk, there was a young lady, she came up to me and she hugged me. She asked me a question about Emmett Till and she said, "I'm going to grow up, and I'm going to change the world."

To have this child say that, and mean it, after having spent time in a space like this, that speaks to human potential.

Jennifer Errick: Regardless of who you are or where you're visiting from, Saulsberry has advice for those who take the winding country drive to Sumner to experience the complex legacy of this courthouse and the many other historic places that surround it.

Benjamin Saulsberry: What I tend to tell people is to just be present in each space and give yourself some time to really give some real thought to the experience as a whole later. You don't have to take it all in an hour. You're just not going to, but just be present. And when you leave here and by here, I mean, when you leave Mississippi, you make it back home and whatnot, as the days and weeks pass, you'll start to kind of create another perspective of your experience. Just allow that to be whatever it is.

Jennifer Errick: Alan Spears agrees, echoing many of the same sentiments as Saulsberry and suggesting that these experiences are a way to carry the work of many others forward.

Alan Spears: I think the idea is, can we have these conversations in a way that's real and meaningful? Not necessarily one that's meant to indict someone currently for actions that were taken 40 or 50 years ago, perhaps before they were even born, but we need to know the truth.

I think that is the way that we get a little bit of justice back for Emmett Till, it's restorative justice. It's after the fact, the barn door has long been closed on that. His murder can't be reversed, but we can get a little restorative justice for Emmett and for Mamie and for the veterans of the Mississippi Delta civil rights movement, for the rest of us as well, by working on something like this — by, at long last, telling the truth.

Jennifer Errick: The Secret lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Episode 11, Telling the Truth, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Kyle Groetzinger. Original theme music by Chad Fischer. Special thanks to Eric Barese and Jeff Taylor for sharing audio on NPCA's campaign to create a national park site honoring the Till family. Learn more at Learn more about the Emmett Till Interpretive Center at Learn more about this podcast at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations with more than 1.6 million members and supporters. NPCA is the nation's only independent non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. And we're proud of it too. You can join the fight to preserve the stories of Emmett Till, Mamie Till-Mobley and many others who shape the course of history. Learn more and join us at