Timothy B. Tyson is senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and author of “The Blood of Emmett Till.”
Most people know some of the horrible story. Three days before Leflore County deputies pulled Till’s body from Tallahatchie River on Sept. 1, 1955, the local prosecutor issued a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant, her husband, Roy, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, on charges of kidnapping.
Till had been tortured to death — clipped ear, gouged-out eye, shattered skull, a bullet to the head — because “the boy from Chicago” spoke to then-21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, Milam later said, at Bryant’s Grocery 10 miles north of Greenwood.
After the sheriff arrested Roy Bryant and his half brother — adding murder charges when the body surfaced — he told a reporter, “We aren’t going to bother the woman. She has got two small boys to take care of.”
Till’s lynching for speaking to a White woman, the subsequent acquittals of the two men charged — and the insistence of Till’s mother on an open casket — set off protests from Buffalo to Los Angeles, helping launch the modern civil rights movement. Images of Till’s mutilated face forced Americans in the North and South to witness the brutality of Jim Crow and the moral emptiness of a nation’s indifference.
In June, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp and a research team discovered the warrant in the basement of the county courthouse. The warrant might set the stage for reopening the case, either at the local or federal level.
An aide to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch says there is no new evidence to justify doing so. The Till family demands that the warrant be served and that Carolyn Bryant Donham, who later remarried and is now in her late 80s, be arrested and tried for alleged kidnapping and accessory to murder.
Would prosecuting her bring any measure of justice at this point? Possibly. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” wrote James Baldwin. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Regardless, what must be faced is the ruthless, White-dominated, social order that the case came to symbolize.
Clearly, local prosecutors thought they had sufficient evidence to charge her 67 years ago. Donham has spoken of the events before, including to me as I was researching a 2017 book on the case. Four days after the incident at the grocery, Roy Bryant and Milam stormed into the home of Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, where Till was staying for a vacation that summer. Armed with pistols, the men yelled that the 14-year-old had done some “smart talking” at the store and dragged him to their car.
Wright stepped out into the darkness that night and told reporters the following day that he heard “a lighter voice” coming from the car identify his nephew. Later he told FBI agents, “a woman was in the background.” This was not Roy Bryant’s first attempt to find Till: Earlier that day, he had snatched a different young man from inside the store and demanded his wife identify him; she said he was not the one who had “insulted” her. That afternoon, Roy Bryant grabbed a third boy from the side of the road; his wife told him that it was not him, either.
And in Donham’s unpublished memoir, which I obtained from her years ago and shared with authorities, she claims that on the night of the murder, Roy Bryant dragged Till into their kitchen at 2:30 a.m. and “growled, ‘Is that him’?”
She says she enraged her husband by saying no.
But then, to her “utter disbelief,” she writes, Till “flashed me a strange smile and said, “‘Yes, it was me.’” She says she begged her husband to return Till unharmed. He promised to do so, in her account, “so … that’s what I thought would happen.”
It stretches credulity to accept that a 14-year-old boy, snatched from sleep by two armed White men, would affirm that he was the person that they were allegedly looking to punish.
In other accounts, Donham denies identifying Till but omits his confession. But there is a pattern in all these accounts — Roy Bryant looked to his wife to identify Till before he perished. Whether she actually did so is less clear. We do know that she testified at the men’s murder trial that Till sexually assaulted her, and she and later told me in an interview, “That part is not true.”
The sheriff claimed from the outset that the body could not have been Till’s and made no effort to investigate the case. Only the men were prosecuted for murder, and an all-White jury acquitted both in a five-day trial. A Leflore County grand jury passed on indicting Donham for murder in 2007.
The still-unserved (but verified) warrant is an opportunity for prosecutors to illuminate the ugly corners of the case and seek justice on behalf of Till. And it offers all of us a chance to consider what the movement that demanded a multiracial democracy back in 1955 can teach us, even now, when we are still killing Emmett Till in so many ways.