After more than a half-century of living a lie, Carolyn Bryant Donham decided to tell the truth. Emmett Till never grabbed her by the waist and said, “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby I’ve (done something) with white women before.”
She can’t remember now if the 14-year-old Chicago youngster even whistled at her on his way out the door.
Her confession to historian and author Timothy Tyson in 2007 may have helped clear Donham’s conscience and bring her to this place of “tender sorrow” she says she now feels for Till’s deceased mother.
But for African-Americans and many others who are just learning of this revelation in Tyson’s new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” it does nothing.
We already knew her story was a lie. So did the judge who presided over the murder trial of her husband and another man in 1955. So did most of the people who lived in the tiny town of Money in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. But the all-white jury acquitted them anyway.
So we will not spend a moment lamenting what should happen to this now 82-year-old woman who, years after the statute of limitations has expired, may have perjured herself by lying to the judge.
For us, Carolyn Bryant — her name at the time — will remain merely a footnote in history, yet a modern testament to the racist and iniquitous legal system that has long refused to give African-American men fair judgment.
We will not elevate the status of her lie by calling it a catalyst for the civil rights movement. We will not ask her to step forward tomorrow and warn America about the consequences of hatred. After this, we will not bother to think of her again.
Instead, we will use the courage and wisdom of Mamie Till-Mobley to drive us forward.
On Aug. 28, 1955, Emmett Till was beaten and shot for reportedly whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi. The body of the black 14-year-old from Chicago was discovered days later in the Tallahatchie River. The accused killers were later acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral back home in Chicago, allowing tens of thousands of people to view his mutilated body, publicly illustrating the violence of Jim Crow segregation.
If there is a single incident that ignited the spirit of a fledgling civil rights movement, it was Emmett Till’s mutilated body lying in an open casket in a South Side mortuary.
Few of us could have endured the pain of having a son’s battered, disfigured face on display for thousands of people to line up and see the way Till-Mobley did. The world would also see what Jim Crow had done to her only child when Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender published pictures of the open casket.
Till-Mobley realized something back then that was not as obvious as it is today. In order to achieve things worthwhile, there must be sacrifice. So when it came to her son’s legacy, she gave, and gave and gave until her own death in 2003.
Since he was slain in 1955, Emmett Till’s story has been shaped by the lie that Bryant told. While his murder has been used to highlight the atrocities of the Jim Crow South, it has also painted Till as a clueless teenager who was killed because he didn’t understand the social mores of the Deep South.
This is how history has told it:
The teenager had gone down south, as many northern black kids did during that era, to spend the summer with relatives. While standing around outside a corner store with his cousins, Till started bragging that he had a white girlfriend back in Chicago.
His cousins didn’t believe him, so they dared him to ask the white woman working behind the counter for a date. Till went inside to buy two cents worth of bubble gum and on the way out, he turned to the woman and said, “Bye, baby.”
That’s when 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant apparently began formulating her lie. She claimed that Till had grabbed her, made sexual advances, flirted with her and then wolf-whistled at her as he walked out the door.
Three days later, her gun-toting husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the home of Till’s great uncle, Rev. Moses Wright, rousted Till from bed and drove off with him in their truck. Days later, Till’s mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River with a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck.
After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the killing in an interview with Look magazine. But to believe the depiction of what happened at the store, you’d have to also believe that Till was ignorant about the caste system that existed for blacks in the South. You would have to believe that he didn’t have a clue that something as mundane as whistling at a white woman could get a black child killed.
And you would have to believe that someone as smart and socially conscious as Till-Mobley would have left that sort of thing to chance. She always insisted that she had not.
Just as black mothers and fathers today teach their sons how to act when stopped by the police, parents in the 1950s told their sons how to behave around whites who had the freedom to issue their own justice upon blacks. We have learned enough about Till-Mobley over the years to know that she would have had that talk with her son.
Bryant’s admission proves that Emmett Till was not a naive kid who did a stupid thing. He was a black kid who paid the price for a scared white woman’s lie.
Carolyn Bryant Donham doesn’t deserve any accolades for finally telling the truth. She was a coward then and she’s a coward now.
If you want to know what courage is, look at Till-Mobley. She was brave enough to use her sorrow to reignite a movement.
In the PBS documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” filmed prior to her death, Till-Mobley told how she came to the decision.
“I decided then that I would start at his feet and work my way up, maybe gathering strength as I went. I paused at his midsection, because I knew he would not want me looking at him. But I saw enough that I knew he was intact. I kept on up until I got to his chin and then I — I was forced to deal with his face. I saw that his tongue was choked out. I noticed that the right eye was lying on midway his cheek, I noticed that his nose had been broken like somebody took a meat chopper and chopped his nose in several places. As I kept looking, I saw a hole, which I presumed, was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side. And I wondered was it necessary to shoot him? Mr. Rayner (the funeral director) asked me, he said “Do you want me to touch the body up?” I said, “No, Mr. Rayner, let the people see what I’ve seen.” I was just willing to bear it all. I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till.”
She fought long and hard to keep her son from becoming a forgotten victim of Jim Crow South. Till-Mobley made sure her son would be remembered as a martyr.