By Jerry Mitchell
The place where the civil rights movement began now lies in ruin.
Bryant Grocery and Meat Market has been broken by years of neglect and battered by high winds from Hurricane Katrina, but few have forgotten the events during the summer of 1955 that started here with a wolf-whistle and ended with the slaying of a black teenager named Emmett Till.
"Like the Liberty Bell, it's the symbol of the movement," said state Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood. "That ought not to be lost."
Leflore County Tax Assessor Leroy Ware said the store isn't worth a penny on the county's books, but that didn't stop owners from initially asking local officials last year for $40 million for the crumbling store before reducing their price to $4 million.
Local officials say they balked at the price, countering with a $50,000 offer. Talks broke off, and the store has continued to rot, despite being placed on the Mississippi Heritage Trust's list of 10 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Harold Ray Tribble of Greenwood, whose family owns the property, doesn't recall the $50,000 offer, but said he plans to start working in March with local, state and national officials to return the property to its original condition.
"We want to restore it," he said. "It's a part of history, and it's about to fall down."
The family wants to sell the property to someone who can restore it or keep it and hire someone to complete the restoration, he said.
David Preziosi, executive director of the trust, said officials must move quickly because the roof and second floor have collapsed. "I think it would really make a great addition to the civil rights trail the state is working on," he said.
Those who believe they'll get rich from historic properties are often disappointed, he said.
For example, a man turned down $100,000 for the dilapidated Ritz Theater on Commerce Street in Natchez, holding out for $250,000, he said. "Eventually the roof fell in, and he sold it for $10,000."
In August 1955, Till was 14 when he took the train from Chicago to visit his cousins in this Delta town. When he walked into this general store, some said he asked for candy. Some said he asked the pretty proprietor, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, for a date.
She testified Till grabbed her, called her "baby," and asked her for a date, but Till's cousins say he never touched her or said anything inappropriate. As Till exited the store, he wolf-whistled at her, the cousins say.
Several nights later, Bryant's then-husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till and beat him repeatedly before finally shooting him. They weighed down Till's body and tossed him into the Tallahatchie River.
Till's mother, Mamie Mobley, insisted on an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son, and the world joined her in outrage.
After their arrests, the half brothers admitted they had taken Till, but denied killing him.
In their September 1955 trial in Sumner, defense lawyers said civil rights leaders had planted the body in the river, and then-Tallahatchie County Sheriff H.C. Strider suggested Till was alive and well.
Jurors bought the claim and acquitted Bryant and Milam, who confessed their guilt months later to Look magazine.
Jordan said it seems wrong to him the Tribble family should make millions from selling the store since Tribble's father, Ray, was one of those jurors. "It's almost asinine to do that," the senator said.
Tribble said he and Jordan are good friends. He said of his family: "We've always been Democrats and always stood up for what was right."
His father did serve on the Till jury but was not the foreman, Tribble said. The only remark his father ever made to him about serving on the jury was the prosecution had failed to prove the body was Till's.
Tribble said his family wants to preserve history and has artifacts from the old store that could help return it to its original condition. "We've got all the signs, the cash registers, the shelves," he said.
Fred Carl, CEO of Viking, is among those who want to see the ruin rebuilt in this tiny town 10 miles west of Greenwood.
"It's an important historic landmark that needs to be preserved," he said. "That's what history's all about."
Decades after the Civil War, Mississippians worked to restore historic sites. The same thing is now happening with the civil rights movement.
"That's what history's all about," Carl said. "You preserve where significant things took place."
If the store were returned to its original condition, it would be a major tourist attraction, he said.
Last year, dozens of student groups from across the United States came to the Delta to visit civil rights sites, including the store, which has become "hallowed ground" for the civil rights movement, Jordan said.
In neighboring Tallahatchie County, the Emmett Till Memorial Tourism Commission is creating a civil rights trail for visitors that would include markers to recognize such places as the courthouse where Till's killers were tried and the spot in the Tallahatchie River where his body was found.
Supervisor Jerome "G" Little, who serves on the commission, said Tallahatchie County, with the help of the state Department of Archives and History, is hoping to raise $4 million to help restore the courthouse to the way it looked in 1955.
"It will be a working courthouse," he said. "And it will also be a museum."
In September 1955, swarms of media came from around the world to attend the trial there.
Bill Minor, who covered the case for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, remembers hearing jurors laugh from behind the closed door as they deliberated for a little more than an hour. "You definitely got a feeling they were making a charade of deliberating," he said.
The foreman of the jury emerged to tell reporters they wouldn't have taken so long, but they stopped to drink Cokes.
A few months after Till's killers went free, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., setting in motion the civil rights movement. Parks said later she was thinking the whole time about Till, whose brutalized body had appeared in a Jet magazine photograph.
In 1993, Jordan became one of the first African-American senators to serve from the Delta. "Do you think I would be a senator today if this had not happened?" he asked. "It's significant historically not only to African Americans, but to white Americans.
"The store epitomized the beginning of the civil rights movement. All of a sudden we were not afraid."