Emmett Till's Accuser Recants: Revisiting the Impact of His Horrific Murder

The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 horrified the world and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. Now, six decades later, the woman who accused him of flirting with her, which led to his murder, admitted she was lying.
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Emmett Till

Emmett Till, circa 1950. 

Emmett Till, a fun-loving 14-year-old from Chicago Illinois, was visiting his great-uncle, Moses Wright, in Money, Mississippi. On the afternoon of August 24, 1955, Emmett and some of his friends went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy some gum. Inside was 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who owned the store with Roy, her husband. At this point, it isn’t clear what happened next. According to Carolyn, Emmett either whistled at her, made a lewd comment, touched her hand, or did all three. She yelled at Emmett and his friends grabbed him out of the store, fearing the woman’s wrath. 

Carolyn didn’t tell her husband about the incident, but he found out and when he confronted her, she confirmed the story. On August 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett from his great uncle’s home and took him to the Tallahatchie River, brutally beat him and shot him in the head. The assailants then tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the river.

Bryant and Milam were arrested and placed on trial in September, 1955. Despite overwhelming evidence of guilt, the all-white male jury needed only one hour to find the two men not guilty. A few months later, Bryant and Milam admitted to kidnapping and killing Till in an interview for Look magazine, for which they were paid $4000. Protected by double jeopardy laws, the men could not be brought to justice.  

In January of 2017, an article in Vanity Fair revealed that Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Bryant Donham had made up the story. The article stated the confession was revealed in a new book, written by Duke University senior research scholar Timothy B. Tyson, entitled The Blood of Emmett Till. In 2007, Tyson was researching the killing of Emmet Till when the 72-year-old Carolyn contacted him to discuss her memoirs that she was writing. During an interview, Tyson recounted the story of Emmett entering the Bryant store and grabbing Carolyn. “That part’s not true.” Carolyn calmly stated. “Honestly, I just don’t remember,” she continued. “It was 50 years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true.” 

Roy and Carolyn Bryant Emmett Till Murder Trial

Roy Bryant sits with his family — (from left) Roy Jr, wife Carolyn, and son Lamar — during his murder trial at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955. 

This is quite a revelation. But what’s to be done? The perpetrators, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam died a long time ago. Though Carolyn Bryant Donham told her original story in court, the jury didn’t hear her testimony and the judge ruled it was inadmissible because it was deemed irrelevant to the case of murder. Ms. Donham is now 82 years old. The statute of limitations for perjury has long since passed. 

The murder brought disgust and indignation from many Americans at the time, even among the residents of Money, Mississippi. Emmet Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open casket for the funeral ceremony. Photographers at Jet magazine published photos that went “viral,” for the time, in major newspapers. The Till's horrifying murder galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and for 60 years has been one of the major rallying cries in the quest for attaining “equal justice for all.” 

There may not be an opportunity to find justice in Ms. Donham’s admission of lying to her husband about her encounter with Till. But there may be an opportunity for Americans to continue to look long and hard at race relations and how we perceive and relate to each other. Black Lives do matter. So do white lives and all of the racial, ethnic, religious and gender diversity in our country. History provides us with opportunities for reflection. But it also provides us with openings to course correct and find more effective ways of interacting with each other. For now, the question is what will Americans do next?