By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 27, 2008
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
SUMNER, Miss. _ On Tuesday, Betty Pearson, 85, daughter and wife of Delta planters, stood in front of the worn-down courthouse where for five days 52 years ago, with mounting fury, she witnessed the trial and acquittal of two white men who later confessed to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black visitor from Chicago who, in the shorthand of history, was killed for whistling at a white woman.
By her side was Robert Grayson, who grew up picking cotton on Pearson’s plantation and was the same age as Till, his distant kin. He is now the mayor of nearby Tutwiler.
Together they read out the resolution agreed to over the last many months by the biracial Emmett Till Memorial Commission they co-chair, expressing the regret and sorrow of the citizens of Tallahatchie County for this “terrible miscarriage of justice” and for “the horrific nature of the crime.”
“Its legacy,” Pearson declared, “has haunted our community.”
The historic moment owed much to the singular and unheralded life of Betty Pearson and her decades of genteel defiance of the white supremacist protocols of the Mississippi Delta. Somehow, she stood her ground while maintaining her standing.
But here in the heavy stillness of the Delta, the Till case _ even five decades later _ still feels raw and personal and unsettled.
“Just the fact of having a group of black people and a group of white people who are meeting on a regular basis and talking with one another and planning on doing something together is totally unheard of here,” Pearson says.
Were it not for Pearson, it would still be unheard of, according to Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss, who has worked to keep the commission on track for more than a year.
“She’s about the only person with the trust of both blacks and whites,” says Glisson, who is white.
The 1955 kidnapping, torture and killing of Emmett Till and the trial that quickly followed are credited with galvanizing the civil rights movement and condemning white Southerners, in the mind of the nation, to a shared guilt.
Pearson was different, for reasons that begin in the fall of 1923.
She was a year old, sitting in her grandma’s lap in the back seat of their Buick, returning from the Gulf Coast, when they were broadsided by an oncoming train at a crossing in the Tallahatchie town of Glendora.
Her grandfather was killed, her grandmother badly hurt. Pearson went sailing out the open window and landed in the cowcatcher of the train that hit them.
“God reached down and plucked me” is how her grandmother would tell it _ a thrilling story and, as Pearson got older, a burden.
“I realized all during the civil rights era … I had this feeling of guilt that I was supposed to solve the problems and I just couldn’t quite figure out what it was I could do to solve them,” she says.
She remembers her views on race crystallizing in the summer of her seventh year. Answering a knock at the back door, she told her mother there was a black lady there to see her. “You don’t say `lady’ for a nigra,” her mother corrected her. “Ladies are only white people.”
Not so, her grandmother later told her. “I don’t like to contradict your mother, but I have to tell you that what she told you the other day was wrong. You’re a lady depending on how you behave, not what color your skin is.”
“That just made tremendous sense to me,” Pearson recalls.
At Ole Miss she fomented a successful strike by black laundry workers. She won a national contest with an essay about the folly of segregation, gaining a full scholarship for the master’s program of her choice at Columbia University. When her father forbade her move to New York City, she enlisted in the Marines.
The man she married, Bill Pearson, shared her views. “We weren’t pariahs or anything,” he says today. “We had a different opinion about race.”
The plantation afforded them the privacy to entertain whom they liked and the independence to refuse entreaties to join the White Citizens Council, the bulwark of white supremacy founded in the Delta in 1954 by Robert “Tut” Patterson, who had dated Betty and been a Boy Scout with Bill.
Things got tenser with the Till trial.
Pearson asked Bill’s uncle, who ran the local weekly, for two press tickets to the trial for her and her like-minded friend Florence Mars of Philadelphia, Miss. They sat with the white reporters behind the jury box.
It was, she says, “an eye-opener.”
“Even though I knew racism, it was more the sort of benevolent paternalism of my father, you know, blacks are inferior, they can’t do what I can do, so it’s my obligation to take care of them. But the Emmett Till case made me realize there was something so much more vicious than that.”
As bad was the way sweet little Sumner succumbed.
“What infuriated me was that every single lawyer in town was part of the defense for these two thugs who committed this hideous crime,” Pearson says, including the best man at her wedding. (Four months after their acquittal, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant confessed to a reporter for Look magazine.)
Pearson and Mars spoke freely of their outrage with the Yankee reporters they befriended, but, “If you read any of the stories about the trial, you came away with the idea that there wasn’t a white person in Mississippi who wasn’t a horrible racist.”
In the 1960s, Pearson served on the Mississippi advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “It absolutely killed my father. He told me it was a betrayal of my heritage.”
As Grayson remembers, “They’d say Betty Pearson’s become a nigger lover. Some of the people they had as close friends kind of weaved away after that.”
The Emmett Till Memorial Commission grew out of the county board’s desire to rescue the courthouse from ruin. Restoring it to how it was at the time of the trial, the thinking ran, might draw public and private contributions.
It’s a practical if incongruous mix of white pillars of the community and black powers-that-be in a majority-black county.
Relationships go way back. Just as Grayson grew up on Pearson’s plantation _ “my baby brother grew up with her little girl and she would take him places just like he was a white kid” _ Jerome G. Little, president of the county board of supervisors, grew up on the plantation of Frank Mitchener, who before his retirement was among the foremost cotton farmers in the Delta.
Old habits die hard. While Pearson asked Little and Grayson to call her “Betty,” they can’t bring themselves to do it. “Nobody black will call me by my first name,” she says.
Suspicions abound in the county of 14,000. Some whites don’t want to revisit the Till story. Little, who was 2 at the time of the trial, says some blacks think whites are now exploiting Till’s memory.
Says Mitchener, “I think the most appealing thing is the fact the races are cooperating and we have a common goal. We don’t want to lose our courthouse.”
To Pearson, it’s ultimately about racial reconciliation.
But to understand how long and twisting that path may prove, go to Glendora, the town bisected by the railroad tracks where the toddler Pearson was catapulted into the cowcatcher and her life’s mission.
Glendora is home to 285 people _ all black, according to longtime Mayor Johnny B. Thomas, the memorial commission’s treasurer.
A few months ago, Thomas says, some of the commission’s blacks came by to tell him that whites on the panel were unsettled that he had served a short stretch in a federal prison nearly two decades back for running slot machines, and wanted him to relinquish the treasurer’s spot.
“It was like a visit from the past,” Thomas says. “I refused to step down.” But he felt a cold rush of fear.
Last year, Thomas started a Till museum in the building where Till’s killers may have found the cotton gin fan they used to sink his body in the river.
The museum pays special attention to the early news reports that named black hirelings of the killers who might have acted as accomplices. They include Thomas’ father, who took off for Dayton, Ohio, where he still lives. He’s never been charged. He has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence, and, Thomas says, “if there were black accomplices it was created by Jim Crowism.”
But he says a shadow of doubt has hovered over the family since he was 1 year, 8 months and 28 days old _ the day Till was kidnapped _ and he sees no way to dispel it.
Pearson is over her savior complex. She’s outlived most of her friends. She’s taken up bonsai, which bend to your will. On race, she says, “people talk a good game but the racism is right there just underneath the surface.”
“A lot of white people in this town have never really talked to a well-educated black person. They talk to house servants and tractor drivers, and then they get terribly disturbed by the fact so many teenagers are dropping out and the drug situation in these little black towns,” she says. “All of that is ammunition for the continued racial prejudice.”