The Story Of Emmett Till Continues

Almost a year ago, I wrote of the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.  In recent weeks, a warrant was discovered for the woman who falsely accused Till of making a pass at her … an accusation that led to his murder.  That warrant was never served … it was, after all, 1955 Mississippi where a white woman’s word was valued far more than the life of a young Black person like Emmett Till.  Charles Blow’s column on Sunday is a heart-wrenching plea for justice … though no amount of justice will give Emmett Till his life back.

Shed No Tears for Carolyn Bryant Donham

By Charles M. Blow

Opinion Columnist

17 July 2022


In 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham (then just Carolyn Bryant), a 21-year-old white woman, accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, of making an unwelcome advance at her.

Those accusations led to the boy’s brutal murder. Her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were charged with the crime.

Now the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has obtained a copy of an unpublished memoir by Donham in which she reportedly wrote that she “tried to protect” the boy by telling her husband, “He’s not the one. That’s not him. Please take him home.”

And, in an astonishing stroke of insensitivity, she wrote that she “always felt like a victim as well as Emmett.”

Ma’am, hush! You have been alive and breathing for nearly 67 years since Till’s bloated body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River with the fan of a cotton gin tied around his neck.

Donham is now an elderly woman, but let’s be clear: Don’t shed a single tear for her.

She didn’t just accuse Till of making improper advances on the day she first encountered the boy; she upped the ante at trial, saying that Till had also physically assaulted her, grabbing her hand so hard that it was difficult to jerk it loose, and then grabbing her around her waist.

She casually called the murdered boy the N-word at trial, referring to Till as a N-word “man,” even though by the time of the trial, everyone knew he was a boy.

And she wasn’t the only one to mislabel him. At one point, the defense attorney asked: “When you got your pistol, Mrs. Bryant, where was this boy then? Or I should say, where was this man?”

The adultification of Black children continues unabated as a means of justifying deadly force visited upon their bodies. When the police shot Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park within seconds of arriving on the scene, the officer who called in the shooting said, “Shots fired, male down, Black male, maybe 20.” Rice was 12 years old.

In Donham’s interview with the F.B.I. in the mid-2000s, when the case was reopened, she said that the boy accosted her and that “as soon as he touched me, I started screaming for Juanita.” There was no screaming in the original testimony.

In his 2017 book, the historian Timothy Tyson claimed that Donham recanted parts of her trial testimony, writing: “But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, ‘That part’s not true.’ ”

Donham’s family denies that she recanted.

One question still lingers: Donham was involved in Till’s abduction. Till’s uncle Moses testified at trial that when Bryant and Milam kidnapped the boy, they took him outside to their car, where a third person identified him in a voice that seemed to him “a lighter voice than a man’s.”

Late last month, an unserved arrest warrant for Donham “on a charge of kidnapping” was found in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse. Yet in a statement Donham gave in 1955, she said that she “did not go to this Negro’s house” but instead Bryant took the boy to her to identify.

But according to an account by the author Douglas O. Linder, Donham was in the truck with Bryant and Milam earlier on the day of the kidnapping “looking for their target” when they seized another Black man before throwing him out of the truck after Donham said he wasn’t the right N-word.

Then when Bryant and Milam were acquitted at the trial, the killers kissed their wives, lit cigars and posed for pictures. Donham was one of the kissed wives. Where was the remorse? Where is it now?

Less than a year after the trial ended, in 1956, Bryant and Milam confessed to the gruesome murder in an interview in Look magazine. Still, Donham stayed married to the killer for about 20 years after Till was killed and never offered a public word about the matter.

In the memoir, she writes that when her husband brought the boy to her for identification, Till “flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect.” He didn’t act “scared in the least,” she wrote.

This, by the way, is the same reason Milam gave to Look for murdering the boy. Even though Bryant and Milam took turns pistol whipping the boy in a tool shed in the early morning, Milam said: “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”

The legal system has declined for decades to charge Donham with a crime, and on Friday an aide to the Mississippi attorney general made clear that there are no plans to reopen the case against Donham now.

But, beyond the criminal measure, Donham has failed the moral measure. She has failed at every turn to offer a redeeming word or action for the boy’s murder and her part in it. The words we’ve seen in this memoir don’t cut it.

The only sympathy I have about this case is for Emmett Till and his family. For Donham, I have only questions, and contempt.

You Cannot Un-Lynch A Dead Man …

“In August 1955, Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he stopped at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. There he encountered Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. Whether Till really flirted with Bryant or whistled at her isn’t known. But what happened four days later is. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, seized the 14-year-old from his great-uncle’s house. The pair then beat Till, shot him, and strung barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck and dumped the lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River. A white jury quickly acquitted the men, with one juror saying it had taken so long only because they had to break to drink some pop. When Till’s mother Mamie came to identify her son, she told the funeral director, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” She brought him home to Chicago and insisted on an open casket. Tens of thousands filed past Till’s remains, but it was the publication of the searing funeral image in Jet, with a stoic Mamie gazing at her murdered child’s ravaged body, that forced the world to reckon with the brutality of American racism.”Time 


Carolyn Bryant

Just yesterday (Friday, 27 January 2017), it was made known that the person who caused Emmett Till’s murder, Carolyn Bryant (Donham) confessed that she lied back in 1955.  She lied … because … ???    Who knows?  The reality is that all Emmett Till did was wolf-whistle at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant who was working behind the counter in the family-owned grocery store where Till was paying for his bubble gum.  A 14-year-old kid.  Whistled at an attractive young woman.  And for this he lost his life in the most brutal fashion imaginable.

Carolyn actually walked to the door behind young Emmett and his cousins, whereby Emmett, being from Chicago and not familiar with “southern protocol” waved, said “good-bye”, not “good-bye ma’am”, as was the “proper” way for a black male to address a white female in the racist southern culture, and as he reached the car, gave a wolf-whistle.  Carolyn, apparently never having been whistled at before, said she was afraid. She was Afraid. Of a Whistle. That evening, she reported the incident to her husband Roy, but she embellished the story just a bit.  She said that Emmett had grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her. Mr. Bryant, a good ol’ southern white boy, was instantly enraged and along with his friend, J.W. Milam dragged Emmett out of his uncle’s home where he was visiting, beat him, shot him, wrapped barbed wire around his neck, tied a 75-pound weight around him and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. All because he whistled and did not say “ma’am”. Let that one sink in for a minute.


Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried the following month, and were acquitted by an all-white jury after only 67 minutes of deliberation, during which time the jury took one break.  The next year, Bryant and Milam confessed to killing Till in an interview with Look Magazine  for which they were reportedly paid between $3,600 – $4,000.  The law of double jeopardy prevented them being tried again, though I would argue that their public confession constituted new evidence and therefore they could have been re-tried. But alas, it was Mississippi in the 1950s.

till-tyson.jpgNow fast-forward to yesterday, when it was made public that Ms. Donham actually confessed to the lie in 2007.  Yes, ten years ago, Donham, formerly Carolyn Bryant, confessed to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor and historian, specializing in issues of race and culture associated with the Civil Rights movement.  It is believed to be the only interview she has ever given.  Why did Tyson wait ten years to share this knowledge with the public?  Because he wanted to write a book.  Yes, folks, Timothy B. Tyson withheld information about a lie that led to murder for ten years for p-r-o-f-i-t.  Tyson’s book, titled The Blood of Emmett Till, is to be released next Tuesday, 31 January, and I hope it does not sell a single copy.  This man withheld this information for TEN YEARS so that he could profit from a book. He is a disgrace to mankind.


Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother


As noted in the first paragraph, Emmett Till’s mother demanded an open casket because she wanted the world to see what had been done to her son.  Sadly, she died in 2003 without learning the truth.  Or, perhaps it was better that she not know. The murder of Emmett Till is considered to be one of the catalysts that prompted the Civil Rights movement.

Mr. Tyson noted in an interview on Friday with Vanity Fair magazine that “That case went a long way toward ruining her [Donham’s] life.”  Perhaps I am cruel and heartless, but I have zero sympathy for Ms. Donham.  It happened 62 years ago. Nothing that has happened since that day would have changed the outcome for Emmett Till.  But there is a lot of guilt to go around here, including the guilt of Timothy B. Tyson for withholding information from law enforcement and the public for ten long years while he wrote his book.

Today, after reading about Ms. Donham’s confession and writing this post, I am thinking of Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Michael Brown.  I think of Sanford, Florida and the killing of Trayvon Martin.  I think of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.  Different situations, certainly, but I wonder if in 50-60 years, somebody will come forward and say, as Ms. Donham did … “I lied”.