A steamy hot September day in 1955, in a racially segregated courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi, two white men, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant—a country-store owner—were acquitted of the murder of a 14-year-old black Chicago boy. His name was Emmett Till. And in August of that year, while visiting a Deep South that he didn’t understand, Till had entered a store to buy two cents worth of bubble gum.
Shortly after exiting, he likely whistled at Bryant’s 21-year-old wife, Carolyn. Enraged, Bryant and Milam took matters into their own hands. They would later admit to local authorities that they’d abducted Till three nights later. And when they finished with him, his body was so hideously disfigured from having been bludgeoned and shot that its horrifying depiction—in a photo in Jet magazine—would help to propel the American civil rights movement.
Milam and Bryant were arrested, and, with the aid of NAACP Mississippi field secretary Medgar Evers and other black activists in seeking out witnesses, the prosecution produced compelling evidence. Even so, it wasn’t a surprise when the all-white, all-male jury voted “not guilty,” in little over an hour. Mississippi, after all, had had very few convictions for white-on-black murders. And the state led the nation in lynchings. (Four months after their irreversible acquittal, Milam and Bryant admitted their guilt to Look magazine, receiving a fee of some $3,000 for their story.)
But the most explosive testimony, which certainly influenced the local white public’s perception of the motive for the murder, were the incendiary words of Carolyn Bryant, who was working in the store that night. On the stand, she had asserted that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the “unprintable” word he had used (as one of the defense lawyers put it), “he said [he had]’”—done something – “with white women before.
’” Then she added, “I was just scared to death.” A version of her damning allegation was also made by the defendant’s lawyers to reporters. (The jury did not hear Carolyn’s words because the judge had dismissed them from the courtroom while she spoke, ruling that her testimony was not relevant to the actual murder. But the court spectators heard her, and her testimony was put on the record because the defense wanted her words as evidence in a possible appeal in the event that the defendants were convicted.)
Down through the decades, Carolyn Bryant Donham (she would divorce, then marry twice more) was a mystery woman. An attractive mother of two young boys, she had spent approximately one minute alone with Till before, in view of others, the alleged whistling had occurred. (He may not have whistled; he was said to have a lisp.) Carolyn then dropped out of sight, never speaking to the media about the incident.
But she is hidden no more. In a new book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster), Timothy Tyson, a Duke University senior research scholar, reveals that Carolyn—in 2007, at age 72—confessed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. “That part’s not true,” she told Tyson, about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her. As for the rest of what happened that evening in the country store, she said she couldn’t remember. (Carolyn is now 82, and her current whereabouts have been kept secret by her family.)
Tyson’s book, to be published next week, was preceded by the definitive study of the case, Devery S. Anderson’s masterful Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, which was published in 2015 by the University Press of Mississippi. (Last week, John Edgar Wideman’s meditation on Till, Writing to Save a Life, was named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.) Still, no author save Tyson has ever interviewed Carolyn Bryant Donham. (Her ex-husband and brother-in-law are both dead.) “That case went a long way toward ruining her life,” Tyson contends, explaining that she could never escape its notoriety. His compelling book is suffused with information that Donham, over coffee and pound cake, shared with him in what he calls a “confessional” spirit.
Carolyn, in fact, had approached Tyson because she was writing her memoirs. (Her manuscript is in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill library archives and will not be available for public view until 2036, according to Tyson.) Her daughter had admired Tyson’s earlier book, Blood Does Sign My Name, about another racism-inspired murder committed by someone known to Tyson’s family.
And Tyson himself, a Southern preacher’s son, says that when he sat down with Carolyn, she “could have fit in at a Tyson family reunion”—even at its local church. Clearly, he observed, she had been altered by the social and legal advances that had overtaken the South in the intervening half century. “She was glad things had changed [and she] thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time.” She didn’t officially repent; she was not the type to join any racial reconciliation groups or to make an appearance at the new Emmett Till Interpretive Center, which attempts to promote understanding of the past and point a way forward.
But as Carolyn became reflective in Timothy Tyson’s presence, wistfully volunteering, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” She also admitted she “felt tender sorrow,” Tyson would note, “for Mamie Till-Mobley”—Emmett Till’s mother, who died in 2003 after a lifetime spent crusading for civil rights.
(She had bravely insisted that her son’s casket remain open at his funeral in order to show America what had been done to him.) “When Carolyn herself [later] lost one of her sons, she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved all the more.” Tyson does not say whether Carolyn was expressing guilt. Indeed, he asserts that for days after the murders, and until the trial, she was kept in seclusion by her husband’s family. But that “tender sorrow” does sound, in its way, like late-blooming regret.
However meaningful an appearance Carolyn Bryant Donham makes in Tyson’s book, she has receded into her private life. This is unfortunate. Her changed attitude, if genuine, might have real meaning today, what with a polarized electorate, renewed racial tensions, and organizations and Web sites promoting white supremacy.
Shortly before the election, I talked to Myrlie Evers-Williams, the 83-year-old widow of Medgar Evers, who was assassinated by a racist attacker in 1963. She told me that the vitriol in evidence at some of Donald Trump’s rallies last year had given her “more and more and stronger flashbacks” to fearful years she thought were long gone. That said, she also expressed that she wanted “the past to stay the past… Medgar wanted America to be better.”
Her hopes are echoed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. And yet, for the civil rights leader, the impact of Till’s killing resonates to this day. “It’s like Russian roulette,” Jackson insists. “You can never tell what bullet goes off in a galvanizing moment.” But this “bullet” certainly did. “I asked Miss Rosa Parks [in 1988] why didn’t she go to the back of the bus, given the threat that she could be hurt, pushed off the bus, and run over, because three other ladies did get up.
She said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it.” Emmett Till’s killing, Jackson believes, “was a defining moment in the history of lynchings.
It was the first major lynching story after the ’54 [Brown v. Board of Education] decision, and blacks ran with it.” Even the date of Till’s murder, he says, has continued to have import up through our era. “August 28, 1963, was Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he explains. “And August 28, 2008, was the day Barack Obama was nominated for president.”
With Tyson’s new book, and Carolyn Bryant Donham’s remarks, we have reason to revisit a period in our history when bigotry, blood, and sacrifice became a call to action.