MICHELE NORRIS, host:
More than 50 years ago, Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was kidnapped and murdered by two white men in Mississippi where he'd been visiting family. The killers were acquitted by an all-white jury at the Tallahatchie County courthouse. It was at that courthouse today that community leaders in the rural town of Sumner apologized to Till's family.
NPR's Audie Cornish has that story.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I pray we'll all be ready. I pray we'll all be ready.
AUDIE CORNISH: Emmett Till's mother, his killers, and many of those people involved with the case have long since died. But it's clear that his death still hangs over the communities, said local bank president, O.T. Sherman.
Mr. O.T. SHERMAN (Local Bank President, Sumner County, Mississippi): The events that happened in this courthouse and in this area in 1955 defined to the world who we are in Tallahatchie County and what we're all about.
CORNISH: The crowd that gathered at the courthouse steps was far smaller than the hundreds who crowded the Till trial 52 years ago under the national spotlight. In fact, most were black school kids and elderly residents who are here to hear from Sumner County officials. Apologies came from the leader of the Biracial Memorial Commission named in Till's honor, Betty Pearson, to Jerome Little, a county supervisor, and the local sheriff, William Brewer.
Ms. BETTY PEARSON (Co-chairman, Biracial Memorial Commission): 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.
Mr. JEROME LITTLE (Supervisor, Tallahatchie County): Books have been written. Movies been made. Storied have been told. But Tallahatchie County hasn't had a chance to say to the family, as say tell themselves, we regret that happened.
Mr. WILLIAM BREWER (Sheriff, Tallahatchie County): I've got a resolution rolled up, but I'm not going to read it. I'm just going to tell you we apologize. We're sorry for what happened. I didn't do it. I was just a dream in my mom and daddy's heart then. But I know how you feel.
CORNISH: Sumner was not the scene of Till's murder, but it's where his body was found and where an all-white jury acquitted his killers. In August of 1955, Till was visiting family in nearby Money, Mississippi. While visiting a local grocery store, he was rumored to have whistled at the white shopkeeper's wife. Three days later, he was snatched from his family's bed, beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan strapped to his body.
Federal officials declined his family's pleas to get involved. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to the killing years later in a national magazine, but they have long since died free men.
Till's cousin, Simeon Wright was there the night Till was kidnapped. He praised the county's move towards reconciliation.
Mr. SIMEON WRIGHT (Cousin of Emmett Till): We want to thank you all today for what you are doing here. You're doing what you could. If you could do more, you would.
CORNISH: Efforts by the FBI, Justice Department, and the local district attorney this past year to revive the case and bring new prosecutions came up empty handed. Local high school teacher Joe Young(ph) said he was glad to see a biracial effort, but he had mixed feelings about the event.
Mr. JOE YOUNG (High School Teacher, Sumner County, Mississippi): I downplayed the apology because I think that our generation can't apologize for what someone else did, but we can only speak for ourselves that with God's help, we're not ever going to let it happen again.
CORNISH: The murder of Emmett Till is now officially closed. But the lessons learned from the reinvestigation of his case have inspired federal officials to identify and review more than 100 other cold case hate crimes from the Civil Rights era.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, Sumner, Mississippi.