Emmett Till, the only child of Louis Till and Mamie Till, was born near Chicago, Illinois, on 25th July, 1941. At the age of three he became ill with non paralytic polio. He survived but left him with a speech defect. Friends described him as "brash, prank-loving" who "liked to dress smart and talk smart". (1)
Mamie and Louis Till separated in 1942 after she discovered that he had been unfaithful. Louis later abused her, choking her to, unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. For violating court orders to stay away from Mamie, Louis Till was forced by a judge in 1943 to choose between jail or enlisting in the U.S. Army. (2)
While taking part in the Italian Campaign, Till, Fred A. McMurray and an unnamed soldier, were arrested by military police, who suspected them of the murder of an Italian woman and the rape of two others, in Civitavecchia. The third third soldier was granted immunity in exchange for testimony against McMurray and Till. After a short investigation, Till and McMurray were court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on 2nd July, 1945. (3)
According to Juan Williams, "Emmett Till's neighborhood was a working-class black area with its share of storefront preachers and apartment buildings crowded with relatives from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi... Emmett Till knew segregation. McCosh Elementary was a public school with black students only. When his mother, made plans to send him south for the summer on the Illinois Central, she knew he would have to ride in the train's colored section. But the segregation Emmett knew in the North was nothing like the segregation he rode into in Mississippi. His only warning came from his mother, a Mississippi native who had left for Chicago with her family when she was two years old." Mamie Till warned her son to be careful when dealing with white people in Mississippi: "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly." (4)
In August, 1955, Emmett, now aged 14, was sent by his mother to visit relatives near Money, Mississippi. Emmett stayed at the home of his uncle, Moses Wright. During the evening of 24th August, Emmett, Simeon Wright, and a group of his friends, went to Bryant's Grocery Store. Carolyn Bryant later claimed that Emmett had grabbed her at the waist and asked her for a date. When pulled away by his cousin, Emmett allegedly said, "Bye, baby" and "wolf whistled". (5)
Wright later commented: "I think Emmett wanted to get a laugh out of us or something. He was always joking around, and it was hard to tell when he was serious.... Well, it scared us half to death. You know, we were almost in shock. We couldn't get out of there fast enough, because we had never heard of anything like that before. A black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? No." (6)
Carolyn Bryant told her husband, Roy Bryant, about the incident and he decided to punish the boy for his actions. The following Saturday, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, John W. Milam, took him from the home of Moses Wright and drove him to "a barn, beat and lynched him. They dragged his body to the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a massive metal cotton gin fan, and shoved his body into the water." (7)
After Emmett's body was found Bryant and Milam were charged with murder. On 19th September, 1955, the trial began in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Joseph Wilson Kellum was their defence attorney. He later recalled that he believed the men when they denied that they had murdered Till. During the trial he told the jury that their forefathers would turn over in their graves if they convicted any white man for killing a black man. "I was trying to say something that would meet with - where they would agree with me, you see. Because I was employed to defend those fellas. And I was going to defend them as much as I could and stay within the law." (8)
In court Moses Wright identified Bryant and Milam as the two men who took away his nephew on the 24th August. Moses pleaded with the men to leave Emmett alone. "He's only 14, he's from up North. Why not give the boy a whipping, and leave it at that?" His wife Elizabeth Wright offered money to the intruders, but they ordered her to go back to bed. Milam, at 6 feet two inches and 235 pounds, turned to Moses and threatened him. "How old are you, preacher?" Wright said that he was 64. "If you make any trouble, you'll never live to be 65." (9)
Other African Americans also gave evidence against Bryant and Milam but after four days of testimony the all white jury took just 67 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. "One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they had not stopped for a soda." (10) After the trial Moses Wright, fearing what would happen to him if he remained in Mississippi, moved to Chicago. (11)
Richard Rubin interviewed one of the jurors, Ray Tribble, many years after the trial. Rubin asked him why he found the men not guilty. He agreed with Kellum that the whole event had been staged by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and that Emmett Till was still alive. "He explained, quite simply, that he had concurred with the defense team's core argument: that the body fished out of the Tallahatchie River was not that of Emmett Till - who was, they claimed, still very much alive and hiding out in Chicago or Detroit or somewhere else up North - but someone else's, a corpse planted there by the NAACP for the express purpose of stirring up a racial tornado that would tear through Sumner, and through all of Mississippi, and through the rest of the South, for that matter." Rubin pointed out Emmett Till's own mother identified the body of her son? Tribble replied: "That body had hair on its chest... and everybody knows that "blacks don't grow hair on their chest until they get to be about 30." (12)
Mississippi senators James Eastland and John C. Stennis were leaked information about the crimes of Emmett's father, Louis Till. News about this was carried on the front pages of Mississippi newspapers throughout October and November 1955. According to Davis Houck and Matthew A. Grindy, the authors of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press (2008), "Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens' Councils". (13)
The Chicago Defender, took a very different approach to its reporting of the case and called on the federal government to take action: "The trial is over, and this miscarriage of justice must not be left unavenged. The Defender will continue its investigations, which helped uncover new witnesses in the case, to find other Negroes who actually witnessed the lynching, before they too are found in the Tallahatchie river. At this point we can only conclude that the administration and the justice department have decided to uphold the way of life of Mississippi and the South. Not only have they been inactive on the Till case, but they have yet to take positive action in the kidnapping of Mutt Jones in Alabama, who was taken across the state line into Mississippi and brutally beaten. And as yet the recent lynchings of Rev. George Lee and LaMarr Smith in Mississippi have gone unchallenged by our government. The citizens councils, the interstate conspiracy to whip the Negro in line with economic reins, open defiance to the Supreme Court's school decision - none of these seem to be violations of rights that concern the federal government." (14)
The authorities in Mississippi wanted to bury Emmett Till straight away. However, Mamie Till insisted on taking her son's body back to Chicago. "Do you want me to fix him up?" the undertaker asked her. "No, you can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw." Her decision to leave the coffin open and delay the funeral by three days exposed the rest of America and the world to what was happening in Mississippi. Thousands in Chicago lined up to see the body and the pictures were published in the black magazine Jet. (15)
Aware they could not be tried again for the murder of Emmett Till, Roy Bryant and John Milam decided to sell their story for around $4,000. The journalist, William Bradford Huie, decided to pay this money. The interview took place in the law firm of the attorneys who had defended Bryant and Milam. Bryant and Milam's attorneys asked the questions and both men confessed to killing Till. (16) They attempted to justify the murder by claiming they only wanted to scare him. However, when he refused to repent or beg for mercy, they said, they had to kill him. (17)
Huie's article was published in Look Magazine in January 1956, He quoted Milam as saying: "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a N******* in my life. I like N******* in their place -- I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, N******* are gonna stay in their place. N******* ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a N******* gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that N******* throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you - just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'" (18)
This confession had a tremendous impact on the consciousness of many people living in the Deep South. Anne Moody wrote: "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me - the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn't have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought. I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders Mrs. Rice (my teacher) had told me about and those I vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites." (19)
Mamie Till joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and agreed to travel and lecture throughout the country. "Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, 'That's their business, not mine'. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all." (20)
The Montgomery Advertiser picked up the story and wrote about it in some detail. It condemned the reporting of the case, especially the detailed account of the crimes committed by Emmett's father, Louis Till. (21) Elliott J. Gorn has pointed out: The image of Emmett Till as a sexual assailant seemed much more plausible if Louis Till was a 'savage murderer and rapist'. No one had to speak any of this; such ideas were just below the surface, deeply held, easily stirred." (22)
Juan Williams, the author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years: 1954-1965 (1987) has argued that there is a strong connection between the reporting of the lynching of Emmett Till and the fact that a few months later Rosa Parks led the black population of Montgomery to boycott of their municipal bus system. As Martin Luther King, a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, agreed to help organise the Montgomery Bus Boycott the Till murder can be seen as the start of the modern civil rights movement. (23)
Elliott J. Gorn, agrees with this assessment. In his book, Let the People See: The Emmett Till Story (2018) he argues that their is a link between the death of Till and Little Rock High School, Segregated Lunch Counters and The Selma March: "The Emmett Till generation carried his memory into Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Birmingham, Selma, and countless other places where they marched and demonstrated." (24)
In the late 1990s the filmmaker Keith Beauchamp began investigating the Emmett Till case. According to the The New York Times "he interviewed several potential witnesses, including one who was jailed in another city at the time of the trial to keep investigators from calling him to the stand... Beauchamp now asserts that there were actually 10 people - several of them still alive - present at the murder." (25)
At the trial Carolyn Bryant testified that Emmett Till had grabbed her hand, she pulled away, and he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and, using vulgar language, told her that he had been with white women before." In an interview she gave to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor in 2016: "She said that wasn't true, but that she honestly doesn't remember exactly what did happen." (26)
In 2022 a team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence about the lynching of Emmett Till found the unserved warrant charging Carolyn Bryant in his 1955 kidnapping. The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation responded by demanding that the authorities finally arrest her this offence. Apparently, the Leflore County sheriff told reporters in 1955 he did not serve the warrant because he did not want to "bother" the woman since she had two young children to care for. (27)
In July 2020, Carolyn Bryant Donham, published a memoir of her life, I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle (2020) "It is my fervent desire that my story will shed light on what happened, at least as I knew and remembered it, and illuminate my small part in this tragedy." Her story had changed from the interview she gave in 2016 and returned to the version she told in 1955 and accused Emmett Till of sexual assault. "He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation."
However, she claimed she tried to protect him when her husband and brother-in-law brought him to her home that night. "I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn't know what was planned for him. I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘He's not the one. That's not him. Please take him home... To my utter disbelief, the young man flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,' or something to that effect." (28) Davis Houck, co-author of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press (2008), has argued: "The idea that Till would essentially out himself in front of his kidnappers and would-be killers," he said, "is beyond absurd." (29)
Bryant insisted that when they left her home she was convinced the men would take Emmett Till home. "The three of them left the store with the young man walking in between. I really wanted to believe he was going to take him back home. I melted into the kitchen chair like a limp doll when they left the room. I heard Roy tell J.W. and his friend to take him back home. I knew that he would be okay; shaken up maybe, scared but okay." (30)
Many people were highly critical of her account: "I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett.... Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss of his life. I paid dearly with an altered life... I have always prayed that God would bless Emmett's family. I am truly sorry for the pain his family was caused. the filmmaker Keith Beauchamp said the memoir shows that Bryant "is culpable in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till and to not hold her accountable for her actions, is an injustice to us all." (31)
Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the case more than 15 years ago commented: "For instance, Donham claims in the memoir to have yelled for help after being confronted by Till inside the family grocery store in Money, Mississippi, yet no one ever reported hearing her screams" Killinger said. Also, Donham never previously mentioned that she and Roy Bryant chatted about the abduction. In the manuscript, she says they did. "That seems ludicrous," Killinger said. "How would you have a major event in your life and not talk about it?" (32)
Killinger points out that during his interviews with Donham, Killinger said she "stated on multiple occasions that she and Roy never discussed the kidnapping and murder." But her memoir tells a different story. After the sheriff showed up in 1955, Donham said Bryant told her in the kitchen that "they had only ‘whipped Emmett' and let him go, so not to worry because everything would be okay." She said she later confronted Bryant about the 14-year-old's death, asking, "How could you do such a thing?" Bryant denied killing Till, and she said she replied, "But you are guilty. You could have walked away, but you didn't. You could have stopped it, but you didn't." (33)
On 9th August, 2022, The Guardian reported that: "A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and a newly revealed memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said on Tuesday. A grand jury in Leflore county in the north-western part of the state considered evidence and testimony regarding Carolyn Bryant Donham's involvement in the kidnapping and death of Till, the local district attorney, Dewayne Richardson, said in a news release. After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, the grand jury determined that there was not sufficient evidence to indict Donham, Richardson said. The panel also considered charges of kidnapping and manslaughter." (34)
How long must we wait for the Federal Government to act? Whenever a crisis arises involving our lives or our rights we look to Washington hopefully for help. It seldom comes.
For too long it has been the device, as it was in the Till case, for the President to refer such matters to the Department of Justice.
And usually, the Department of Justice seems more devoted to exploring its lobos for reasons why it can't offer protection of a Negro's life or rights.
In the current case, the Department of Justice hastily issued a statement declaring that it was making a thorough investigation to determine if young Till's civil rights had been violated.
The Department evidently concluded that the kidnapping and lynching of a Negro boy in Mississippi are not violations of his rights.
This sounds just like both the defense and the prosecution as they concluded their arguments by urging the jury to "uphold our way of life."
The trial is over, and this miscarriage of justice must not be left unavenged. The Defender will continue its investigations, which helped uncover new witnesses in the case, to find other Negroes who actually witnessed the lynching, before they too are found in the Tallahatchie river.
At this point we can only conclude that the administration and the justice department have decided to uphold the way of life of Mississippi and the South. Not only have they been inactive on the Till case, but they have yet to take positive action in the kidnapping of Mutt Jones in Alabama, who was taken across the state line into Mississippi and brutally beaten. And as yet the recent lynchings of Rev. George Lee and LaMarr Smith in Mississippi have gone unchallenged by our government.
The citizens councils, the interstate conspiracy to whip the Negro in line with economic reins, open defiance to the Supreme Court's school decision - none of these seem to be violations of rights that concern the federal government.
Last September in Sumner, Miss., a petit jury found the youth's admitted abductors not guilty of murder. In November, in Greenwood, a grand jury declined to indict them for kidnapping.
Of the murder trial, the Memphis Commercial Appeal said: "Evidence necessary for convicting on a murder charge was lacking." But with truth absent, hypocrisy and myth have flourished. Now, hypocrisy can be exposed; myth dispelled. Here are the facts.
Carolyn Holloway Bryant is 21, five feet tall, weighs 103 pounds. An Irish girl, with black hair and black eyes, she is a small farmer's daughter who, at 17, quit high school at Indianola, Miss., to marry a soldier, Roy Bryant, then 20, now 24. The couple have two boys, three and two; and they operate a store at a dusty crossroads called Money: post office, filling station and three stores clustered around a school and a gin, and set in the vast, lonely cotton patch that is the Mississippi Delta.
Carolyn and Roy Bryant are poor: no car, no TV. They live in the back of the store which Roy's brothers helped set up when he got out of the 82nd Airborne in 1953. They sell "snuff-and-fatback" to Negro field hands on credit: and they earn little because, for one reason, the government has been giving the Negroes food they formerly bought.
Carolyn and Roy Bryant's social life is visits to their families, to the Baptist church, and, whenever they can borrow a car, to a drive-in, with the kids sleeping in the back seat. They call Shane the best picture they ever saw.
For extra money, Carolyn tends store when Roy works outside - like truck driving for a brother. And he has many brothers. His mother had two husbands, 11 children. The first five - all boys - were "Milam children"; the next six -- three boys, three girls -- were "Bryant children."
This is a lusty and devoted clan. They work, fight, vote and play as a family. The "half" in their fraternity is forgotten. For years, they have operated a chain of cottonfield stores, as well as trucks and mechanical cotton pickers. In relation to the Negroes, they are somewhat like white traders in portions of Africa today; and they are determined to resist the revolt of colored men against white rule.
On Wednesday evening, August 24, 1955, Roy was in Texas, on a brother's truck. He had carted shrimp from New Orleans to San Antonio, proceeded to Brownsville. Carolyn was alone in the store. But back in the living quarters was her sister-in-law Juanita Milam, 27, with her two small sons and Carolyn's two. The store was kept open till 9 on week nights, 11 on Saturday.
When her husband was away, Carolyn Bryant never slept in the store, never stayed there alone after dark. Moreover, in the Delta, no white woman ever travels country roads after dark unattended by a man.
This meant that during Roy's absences - particularly since he had no car -- there was family inconvenience. Each afternoon, a sister-in-law arrived to stay with Carolyn until closing time. Then, the two women, with their children, waited for a brother-in-law to convoy them to his home. Next morning, the sister-in-law drove Carolyn back.
Juanita Milam had driven from her home in Glendora. She had parked in front of the store to the left; and under the front seat of this car was Roy Bryant's pistol, a .38 Colt automatic. Carolyn knew it was there. After 9, Juanita's husband, J. W. Milam, would arrive in his pickup to shepherd them to his home for the night.
About 7:30 pm, eight young Negroes - seven boys and a girl - in a '46 Ford had stopped outside. They included sons, grandsons and a nephew of Moses (Preacher) Wright, 64, a 'cropper. They were between 13 and 19 years old. Four were natives of the Delta and others, including the nephew, Emmett (Bobo) Till, were visiting from the Chicago area.
Bobo Till was 14 years old: born on July 25, 1941. He was stocky, muscular, weighing about 160, five feet four or five. Preacher later testified: "He looked like a man."
Bobo's party joined a dozen other young Negroes, including two other girls, in front of the store. Bryant had built checkerboards there. Some were playing checkers, others were wrestling and "kiddin' about girls."
Bobo bragged about his white girl. He showed the boys a picture of a white girl in his wallet; and to their jeers of disbelief, he boasted of success with her.
"You talkin' mighty big, Bo," one youth said. "There's a pretty little white woman in the store. Since you know how to handle white girls, let's see you go in and get a date with her?"
"You ain't chicken, are yuh, Bo?" another youth taunted him.
Bobo had to fire or fall back. He entered the store, alone, stopped at the candy case. Carolyn was behind the counter; Bobo in front. He asked for two cents' worth of bubble gum. She handed it to him. He squeezed her hand and said: "How about a date, baby?"
She jerked away and started for Juanita Milam. At the break between counters, Bobo jumped in front of her, perhaps caught her at the waist, and said: "You needn't be afraid o' me, Baby. I been with white girls before."
At this point, a cousin ran in, grabbed Bobo and began pulling him out of the store. Carolyn now ran, not for Juanita, but out the front, and got the pistol from the Milam car.
Outside, with Bobo being ushered off by his cousins, and with Carolyn getting the gun, Bobo executed the "wolf whistle" which gave the case its name:
That was the sum of the facts on which most newspaper readers based an opinion.
The Negroes drove away; and Carolyn, shaken, told Juanita. The two women determined to keep the incident from their "Men-folks." They didn't tell J. W. Milam when he came to escort them home.
By Thursday afternoon, Carolyn Bryant could see the story was getting around. She spent Thursday night at the Milams, where at 4 a.m. (Friday) Roy got back from Texas. Since he had slept little for five nights, he went to bed at the Milams' while Carolyn returned to the store.
During Friday afternoon, Roy reached the store, and shortly thereafter a Negro told him what "the talk" was, and told him that the "Chicago boy" was "visitin' Preacher." Carolyn then told Roy what had happened.
Once Roy Bryant knew, in his environment, in the opinion of most white people around him, for him to have done nothing would have marked him for a coward and a fool.
On Friday night, he couldn't do anything. He and Carolyn were alone, and he had no car. Saturday was collection day, their busy day in the store. About 10:30 Saturday night, J. W. Milam drove by. Roy took him aside.
"I want you to come over early in the morning," he said. "I need a little transportation."
J.W. protested: "Sunday's the only morning I can sleep. Can't we make it around noon?"
Roy then told him.
"I'll be there," he said. "Early."
J. W. drove to another brother's store at Minter City, where he was working. He closed that store about 12:30 a.m., drove home to Glendora. Juanita was away, visiting her folks at Greenville. J. W. had been thinking. He decided not to go to bed. He pumped the pickup -- a half-ton '55 Chevrolet -- full of gas and headed for Money.
J. W. "Big Milam" is 36: six feet two, 235 pounds; an extrovert. Short boots accentuate his height; khaki trousers; red sports shirt; sun helmet. Dark-visaged; his lower lip curls when he chuckles; and though bald, his remaining hair is jet-black.
He is slavery's plantation overseer. Today, he rents Negro-driven mechanical cotton pickers to plantation owners. Those who know him say that he can handle Negroes better than anybody in the country.
Big Milam soldiered in the Patton manner. With a ninth-grade education, he was commissioned in battle by the 75th Division. He was an expert platoon leader, expert street fighter, expert in night patrol, expert with the "grease gun," with every device for close range killing. A German bullet tore clear through his chest; his body bears "multiple shrapnel wounds." Of his medals, he cherishes one: combat infantryman's badge.
Big Milam, like many soldiers, brought home his favorite gun: the .45 Colt automatic pistol.
"Best weapon the Army's got," he says. "Either for shootin' or sluggin'."
Two hours after Big Milam got the word -- the instant minute he could close the store -- he was looking for the Chicago Negro.
Big Milam reached Money a few minutes shy of 2 a.m., Sunday, August 28. The Bryants were asleep; the store was dark but for the all-night light. He rapped at the back door, and when Roy came, he said: "Let's go. Let's make that trip now."
Roy dressed, brought a gun: this one was a .45 Colt. Both men were and remained -- cold sober. Big Milam had drunk a beer at Minter City around 9; Roy had had nothing.
There was no moon as they drove to Preacher's house: 2.8 miles east of Money.
Preacher's house stands 50 feet right of the gravel road, with cedar and persimmon trees in the yard. Big Milam drove the pickup in under the trees. He was bareheaded, carrying a five-cell flashlight in his left hand, the .45 in the right.
Roy Bryant pounded on the door.
Preacher: "Who's that?"
Bryant: "Mr. Bryant from Money, Preacher."
Preacher: "All right, sir. Just a minute."
Preacher came out of the screened-in porch.
Bryant: "Preacher, you got a boy from Chicago here?"
Preacher: "Yes Sir."
Bryant: "I want to talk to him."
Preacher: "Yessir. I'll get him."
Preacher led them to a back bedroom where four youths were sleeping in two beds. In one was Bobo Till and Simeon Wright, Preacher's youngest son. Bryant had told Preacher to turn on the lights; Preacher had said they were out of order. So only the flashlight was used.
The visit was not a complete surprise. Preacher testified that he had heard of the "trouble," that he "sho' had" talked to his nephew about it. Bobo himself had been afraid; he had wanted to go home the day after the incident. The Negro girl in the party urged that he leave. "They'll kill him," she had warned. But Preacher's wife, Elizabeth Wright, had decided that the danger was being magnified; she had urged Bobo to "finish yo' visit."
"I thought they might say something to him, but I didn't think they'd kill a boy," Preacher said.
Big Milam shined the light in Bobo's face, said: "You the N******* who did the talking?"
"Yeah," Bobo replied.
Milam: "Don't say, 'Yeah' to me: I'll blow your head off. Get your clothes on."
Bobo had been sleeping in his shorts. He pulled on a shirt and trousers, then reached for his socks.
"Just the shoes," Milam hurried him.
"I don't wear shoes without socks," Bobo said: and he kept the gun-bearers waiting while he put on his socks, then a pair of canvas shoes with thick crepe soles.
Preacher and his wife tried two arguments in the boy's behalf.
"He ain't got good sense," Preacher begged. "He didn't know what he was doing. Don't take him."
"I'll pay you gentlemen for the damages," Elizabeth Wright said.
"You N****** go back to sleep," Milam replied.
They marched him into the yard, told him to get in the back of the pickup and lie down. He obeyed. They drove toward Money.
Elizabeth Wright rushed to the home of a white neighbor, who got up, looked around, but decided he could do nothing. Then, she and Preacher drove to the home of her brother, Crosby Smith, at Sumner; and Crosby Smith, on Sunday morning, went to the sheriff's office at Greenwood.
The other young Negroes stayed at Preacher's house until daylight, when Wheeler Parker telephoned his mother in Chicago, who in turn notified Bobo's mother, Mamie Bradley, 33, 6427 S. St. Lawrence.
Had there been any doubt as to the identity of the "Chicago boy who done the talking," Milam and Bryant would have stopped at the store for Carolyn to identify him. But there had been no denial. So they didn't stop at the store. At Money, they crossed the Tallahatchie River and drove west.
Their intention was to "just whip him... and scare some sense into him." And for this chore, Big Milam knew "the scariest place in the Delta." He had come upon it last year hunting wild geese. Over close to Rosedale, the Big River bends around under a bluff. "Brother, she's a 100-foot sheer drop, and she's a 100 feet deep after you hit."
Big Milam's idea was to stand him up there on that bluff, "whip" him with the .45, and then shine the light on down there toward that water and make him think you're gonna knock him in.
"Brother, if that won't scare the Chicago -------, hell won't."
Searching for this bluff, they drove close to 75 miles. Through Shellmound, Schlater, Doddsville, Ruleville, Cleveland to the intersection south of Rosedale. There they turned south on Mississippi No. 1, toward the entrance to Beulah Lake. They tried several dirt and gravel roads, drove along the levee. Finally, they gave up: in the darkness, Big Milam couldn't find his bluff.
They drove back to Milam's house at Glendora, and by now it was 5 a.m.. They had been driving nearly three hours, with Milam and Bryant in the cab and Bobo lying in the back.
At some point when the truck slowed down, why hadn't Bobo jumped and run? He wasn't tied; nobody was holding him. A partial answer is that those Chevrolet pickups have a wraparound rear window the size of a windshield. Bryant could watch him. But the real answer is the remarkable part of the story.
Bobo wasn't afraid of them! He was tough as they were. He didn't think they had the guts to kill him.
Milam: "We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless."
Back of Milam's home is a tool house, with two rooms each about 12 feet square. They took him in there and began "whipping" him, first Milam then Bryant smashing him across the head with those .45's. Pistol-whipping: a court-martial offense in the Army... but MP's have been known to do it.... And Milam got information out of German prisoners this way.
But under these blows Bobo never hollered - and he kept making the perfect speeches to insure martyrdom.
Bobo: "You bastards, I'm not afraid of you. I'm as good as you are. I've 'had' white women. My grandmother was a white woman."
Milam: "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a N******* in my life. I like N****** -- in their place -- I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, N******* are gonna stay in their place. N******* ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a N******* gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that N******* throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you -- just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"
So Big Milam decided to act. He needed a weight. He tried to think of where he could get an anvil. Then he remembered a gin which had installed new equipment. He had seen two men lifting a discarded fan, a metal fan three feet high and circular, used in ginning cotton.
Bobo wasn't bleeding much. Pistol-whipping bruises more than it cuts. They ordered him back in the truck and headed west again. They passed through Doddsville, went into the Progressive Ginning Company. This gin is 3.4 miles east of Boyle: Boyle is two miles south of Cleveland. The road to this gin turns left off U.S. 61, after you cross the bayou bridge south of Boyle.
Milam: "When we got to that gin, it was daylight, and I was worried for the first time. Somebody might see us and accuse us of stealing the fan."
Bryant and Big Milam stood aside while Bobo loaded the fan. Weight: 74 pounds. The youth still thought they were bluffing.
They drove back to Glendora, then north toward Swan Lake and crossed the "new bridge" over the Tallahatchie. At the east end of this bridge, they turned right, along a dirt road which parallels the river. After about two miles, they crossed the property of L.W. Boyce, passing near his house.
About 1.5 miles southeast of the Boyce home is a lonely spot where Big Milam has hunted squirrels. The river bank is steep. The truck stopped 30 yards from the water.
Big Milam ordered Bobo to pick up the fan.
He staggered under its weight... carried it to the river bank. They stood silently... just hating one another.
Milam: "Take off your clothes."
Slowly, Bobo pulled off his shoes, his socks. He stood up, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his pants, his shorts.
He stood there naked.
It was Sunday morning, a little before 7.
Milam: "You still as good as I am?"
Milam: "You still 'had' white women?"
That big .45 jumped in Big Milam's hand. The youth turned to catch that big, expanding bullet at his right ear. He dropped.
They barb-wired the gin fan to his neck, rolled him into 20 feet of water.
For three hours that morning, there was a fire in Big Milam's back yard: Bobo's crepe soled shoes were hard to burn.
Seventy-two hours later - eight miles downstream - boys were fishing. They saw feet sticking out of the water. Bobo.
The majority - by no means all, but the majority - of the white people in Mississippi 1) either approve Big Milam's action or else 2) they don't disapprove enough to risk giving their "enemies" the satisfaction of a conviction.
I was now working for one of the meanest white women in town, and a week before school started Emmett Till was killed.
Up until his death, I had heard of Negroes found floating in a river or dead somewhere with their bodies riddled with bullets. But I didn't know the mystery behind these killings then.
When they had finished dinner and gone into the living room as usual to watch TV, Mrs. Burke called me to eat. I took a clean plate out of the cabinet and sat down. Just as I was putting the first forkful of food in my mouth, Mrs. Burke entered the kitchen.
"Essie, did you hear about that fourteen-year-old boy who was killed in Greenwood?" she asked me, sitting down in one of the chairs opposite me.
"No, I didn't hear that," I answered, almost choking on the food.
"Do you know why he was killed?" she asked and I didn't answer.
"He was killed because he got out of his place with a white woman. A boy from Mississippi would have known better than that. This boy was from Chicago. Negroes up North have no respect for people. They think they can get away with anything. He just came to Mississippi and put a whole lot of notions in the boys' heads here and stirred up a lot of trouble," she said passionately.
"How old are you, Essie?" she asked me after a pause.
"Fourteen, I will soon be fifteen though," I said.
"See, that boy was just fourteen too. It's a shame he had to die so soon." She was red in the face, she looked as if she was on fire.
When she left the kitchen I sat there with my mouth open and my food untouched. I couldn't have eaten now if I were starving. "Just do your work like you don't know nothing" ran through my mind again and I began washing the dishes.
I went home shaking like a leaf on a tree. For the first time out of all her trying, Mrs. Burke had made me feel like rotten garbage. Many times she had tried to instill fear within me and subdue me and had given up. But when she talked about Emmett Till there was something in her voice that sent chills and fear all over me.
Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me - the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I knew once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I also was told that if I were a good girl, I wouldn't have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn't know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough, I thought.
I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders Mrs. Rice (my teacher) had told me about and those I vaguely remembered from childhood. But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders. In fact, I think I had a stronger resentment toward Negroes for letting the whites kill them than toward the whites.
Mississippi is reliving a horrific murder that brought the state worldwide attention in the 1950's and served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. If the Justice Department acts on what appears to be new evidence - and reopens the investigation into this unsolved killing - the country could yet learn the truth about the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black boy who was brutally murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman in 1955.
Emmett, who was visiting from Chicago, was abducted from a relative's house at gunpoint by two white men. His mutilated body was later found in the Tallahatchie River. Mississippi officials ordered the coffin sealed and tried to bury it quickly to keep pictures of the battered corpse out of the press. But Emmett's mother held an open-coffin funeral that drew international attention.
The two white men charged with abducting Emmett at gunpoint were predictably acquitted by an all-white jury. The trail had long since grown cold when a young documentarian named Keith Beauchamp started to make a film about the case in the mid-1990's. Mr. Beauchamp interviewed several potential witnesses, including one who was jailed in another city at the time of the trial to keep investigators from calling him to the stand. Backed by Emmett's relatives, Mr. Beauchamp now asserts that there were actually 10 people - several of them still alive - present at the murder. Family members and members of Congress are urging the federal government to investigate this case, just as it has several other civil rights murders that were committed decades ago but solved only recently.
Given the historical importance of this crime, the Justice Department should move forward to investigate even if the new evidence is less than a road map to sure conviction. There are still millions of people who are eager to know what happened to Emmett Till on that terrible night in Mississippi almost 50 years ago.
The US justice department said yesterday it was reopening the case of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, providing an early catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett, from Chicago, was abducted from his uncle's home in the southern hamlet of Money on August 28 1955, after accusations that he had wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.
His body was pulled from the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in the skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side.
The two white men accused of killing him - Mrs Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half brother, JW Milam - were acquitted by an all-white jury. But Milam later confessed to a reporter from Look magazine: "I'm no bully; I never hurt a N****** in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice.
"Chicago boy,'" I said, "I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble, I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"
Milam said he had beaten Emmett and shot him in the head with a .45-calibre pistol, then tied a heavy metal fan to the body and dumped it in the river.
Civil rights groups and other organisations have called repeatedly for the case to be reopened.
A New York senator, Charles Schumer, and a Harlem congressman, Charles Rangel, are among the most recent of those to have lobbied Congress for the case to be reopened.
"As a nation, we should never be afraid to acknowledge our mistakes - however difficult - so that we can learn from them," Mr Schumer argued.
"The truth, as they say, will set you free. It's no less true in the case of Emmett Till from 50 years ago than it is today, and I am confident that when this resolution passes, we'll get the help we need to find out the truth about this pivotal moment in American history."
In the process of making a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, the film-maker Keith Beauchamp found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and have not previously spoken in public. They include Emmett's cousin, who shared his bed the night he was abducted. They all say there were more people involved in the murder than previously thought.
Justice department officials did not say what prompted them to reopen the case.
When the Emmett's body was returned to Chicago - against the wishes of the sheriff in Mississippi - his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on burying him in an open coffin.
"Do you want me to fix him up?" the undertaker asked her. "No," said Mrs Mobley, who died last year. "You can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw."
Her decision to leave the coffin open and delay the funeral by three days exposed the rest of America and the world to what was happening in Mississippi.
Thousands in Chicago lined up to see the body and the pictures were published in the black magazine Jet. The murder was the subject of the first play by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a poem by the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, and a song by Bob Dylan.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955 - the event that eventually led to the end of segregation on public transport - she said it was Emmett Till's lynching that was on her mind.
"This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanise support for the modern American civil rights movement," said Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
"We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years some additional measure of justice remains possible."
The five-year statute of limitations on any federal charges has long since expired but a state case could still be brought, Mr Acosta said.
Other civil rights-era killings in Mississippi have been reopened with mixed results.
In 1994 Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, Medgar Evers.
But there has been little progress in efforts to bring murder charges for the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers in Neshoba county, Mississippi, which were chronicled in the film Mississippi Burning.
It has long been clear who murdered Emmett Till. In 1955, Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother JW Milam were paid $4,000 for an interview with Look magazine in which they effectively admitted it. "I'm no bully," he told the magazine. "I never hurt a N****** in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice ... 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble, I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.' "
But that was two months after both men had been acquitted by a jury of their peers - all white, southern men. At the end of the five-day trial, their defence lawyer had made a simple pitch to the bigotry of the jurors. "Your fathers will turn over in their graves [if Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure." It took the jury just 67 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they had not stopped for a soda.
But last year the US justice department reopened the case, after a film-maker called Keith Beauchamp, who was making a documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and had not previously spoken in public. Among them was Wright, who shared a bed with Emmett the night before he was abducted. "The last time I saw him, some men were forcing him to get out of bed and get his clothes on, and that was it," said Wright, now 62. "I never dreamed we would finally get to this day." The new witnesses all say there were around 10 more people involved in the murder than was previously thought, five of whom are still alive today. At least one them is believed to be black.
The decision to reopen the case last year was greeted enthusiastically by civil rights campaigners and some politicians. "As a nation, we should never be afraid to acknowledge our mistakes - however difficult - so that we can learn from them," said New York senator Charles Schumer on the day of the announcement. "The truth, as they say, will set you free. It's no less true in the case of Emmett Till from 50 years ago than it is today."
But the decision to exhume the body initially divided Emmett's remaining family. "I personally don't see the point at this time of digging his body up," Bertha Thomas, a distant cousin and president of the Emmett Till Foundation, told the New York Times. "They don't need his body or remains in order to pursue [the perpetrators] if they have solid proof that other people were involved." Before she died, Mobley had told loved ones that she did not want her son to be exhumed; she simply wanted the state of Mississippi to apologise.
But other family members said that without the exhumation it would not be possible to secure a prosecution. With no autopsy performed when he died, the original jury could not even be sure that the body in question was Emmett's, despite Mobley's positive identification during the trial. "Most reasonable people fully believe that it is Emmett Till in the grave," Robert Garrity, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau's office in Jackson, Mississippi, told USA Today. "I believe it is Emmett Till. But we know from the '55 trial that the defence raised the spectre that the state had not ever proved that Emmett Till was dead, much less that the body was indeed Till."
The autopsy, says Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, will be "Emmett's first and last chance to speak for himself ... He'll be able to tell us that it is him, and as much as possible, whether there is any evidence or support for others being involved." This is only one of a rash of civil rights-era cases that have recently been reopened decades after the crimes were committed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre in Montgomery, Alabama, 25 cases have been re-examined or are under re-examination, which have led to 26 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and a mistrial. On June 13, Edgar Ray Killen will go on trial for the murder of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi - the case that formed the basis for the movie Mississippi Burning.
The FBI also recently found what is believed to be the only existing transcript of the 1955 Till trial. "It was in pretty poor shape," said Garrity, "so we had to go through it line by line, word by word, and retype it." Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts for the North-east Mississippi Daily Journal, says it is common for such records to have gone missing in Mississippi. "If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it."
The FBI plans to use the transcript to seek out discrepancies between witness statements then and now. But just as new evidence trickles in, so older evidence continues to fade, bringing a sense of urgency to a case that until recently was relegated to the past. "The witnesses and potential defendants are getting much older," says Senator Schumer. "We cannot afford to wait."
We've known his story forever, it seems. Maybe that's because it's a tale so stark and powerful that it has assumed an air of timelessness, something almost mythical: Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black kid born and raised in Chicago, went down in August 1955 to visit some relatives in the hamlet of Money, Miss. One day, he walked into a country store there, Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, and, on a dare, said something fresh to the white woman behind the counter - 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the owner's wife - or asked her for a date, or maybe wolf-whistled at her. A few nights later, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, yanked young Till out of bed and off into the dark Delta, where they beat, tortured and, ultimately, shot him in the head and pushed him into the Tallahatchie River. His body, though tied to a heavy cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, surfaced a few days later, whereupon Bryant and Milam were arrested and charged with murder.
Reporters from all over the country - and even from abroad - converged upon the little courthouse in Sumner, Miss., to witness the trial. The prosecution mounted an excellent case and went after the defendants with surprising vigor; the judge was eminently fair, refusing to allow race to become an issue in the proceedings, at least overtly. Nevertheless, the jury, 12 white men, acquitted the defendants after deliberating for just 67 minutes - and only that long, one of them said afterward, because they stopped to have a soda pop in order to stretch things out and "make it look good." Shortly thereafter, the killers, immune from further prosecution, met with and proudly confessed everything to William Bradford Huie, a journalist who published their story in Look magazine.
Yes, we know this story very well - perhaps even too well. It has been like a burr in our national consciousness for 50 years now. From time to time it has flared up, inspiring commemorative outbursts of sorrow, anger and outrage, all of which ran their course quickly and then died down. But the latest flare-up, sparked by a pair of recent documentaries, "The Murder of Emmett Till" and "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," has spread to the federal government: last year, the Department of Justice announced that it was opening a new investigation into the case. This spring, Till's body was exhumed and autopsied for the first time. It has been reported that officials may be ready to submit a summary of their findings - an "exhaustive report," as one described it - to the local district attorney in Mississippi by the end of this year. The only person in the Department of Justice who would comment on any aspect of the investigation was Jim Greenlee, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, who would say only that its objective was "to get the facts about what exactly happened that day and who might be culpable."
I have spent a good bit of time trying to do the same thing, even though it's hard to see how I might have any kind of connection with the story of Emmett Till. I am a white man from the Northeast who is not a lawyer or an investigator or an activist; what's more, the whole thing happened a dozen years before I was born. But as is the case with so many other people, the story took fierce hold of me the first time I heard it, as a junior in college in 1987, and it has never let go. It drove me, after graduation, to take a job at The Greenwood Commonwealth, a daily newspaper in Greenwood, Miss., just nine miles from Money. There, I found myself surrounded by people who really were connected, in one way or another, with the case: jurors, defense lawyers, witnesses, the man who owned the gin fan. My boss, a decent man who was relatively progressive when it came to matters of race, nevertheless forbade me to interview any of them - even to ask any of them about it casually - during the year I worked for him.
In 1995, when I found myself back in the Delta to conduct interviews and cover a trial for what would eventually become a book about Mississippi, I took the opportunity to try to talk with the people I couldn't back when I lived there. Unfortunately, many of them had died in the interim, including Roy Bryant. (J.W. Milam died in 1980.) After a good bit of detective work, I managed to track down Carolyn Bryant, only to be told by a man who identified himself as her son that he would kill me if I ever tried to contact his mother. I laughed loudly into the phone, more out of surprise than amusement. "I'm not joking," he said, sounding a bit surprised himself. "Really, I'm not!"
There were others, though, who were willing to talk, were even quite obliging about it, which surprised me, because these were men who had rarely, if ever, been interviewed on the subject. You see, I wasn't interested in talking to Till's cousins and other members of the local black community, the people who had been there with him at the store, who had witnessed or heard tell of his abduction and had worried that they might be next. Those people had been interviewed many times already; I knew what they had to say, empathized with them, understood them. The people I wanted to interview were those with whom I couldn't empathize, those I didn't understand. I wanted to sit down with the men who were complicit in what I considered to be a second crime committed against Emmett Till - the lawyers who defended his killers in court and the jurors who set them free. I wanted to ask: How could they do it? How did they feel about it now? And how had they lived with it for 40 years?
I talked to four of them. They're all dead now.
The Kid Ray Tribble is easy to spot in the photographs and newsreel footage of the trial: whereas 11 of the jurors appear to be staid middle-aged or elderly men, Tribble is wiry and young, in his 20's. Later he became an affluent man, a large landowner, president of the Leflore County Board of Supervisors. Whenever his name came up - which it did fairly often, at least when I lived in Greenwood - it was uttered with great respect. I was in town for six months before I learned that he had been on the Emmett Till jury.
Six years later, I called Tribble to see if he would talk to me about the trial. He didn't really want to, he said, but I was welcome to come over to his house and visit for a while. He might discuss it a bit, and he might not, but in any event, he didn't feel comfortable with my bringing a tape recorder, or even a note pad.
Tribble lived way out in the country, about five miles north of the crumbling building that had once been Bryant's Grocery. He met me on the front lawn and ushered me inside, where we talked a good while about everything, it seemed, but what I had gone there to discuss. Then, I recall, he suddenly offered, "You want to know about that thing, do you?" I did.
He had first suspected it might not be just another trial, he said, when reporters started showing up; then the camera trucks clogged the square, and the jury was sequestered, lodged in the upper floor of a local hotel. He recalled one member managed to bring a radio in so the men could listen to a prizefight. And then, without any emphasis at all, he added, "There was one of 'em there liked to have hung that jury." One juror, he explained - not him, but another man - had voted twice to convict, before giving up and joining the majority.
I was stunned. I had always heard, and believed, that the jury's brief deliberation had been a mere formality. This news forced upon me a belated yet elementary epiphany: the Emmett Till jury was not a machine, an instrument of racism and segregation, a force of history. It was just like any other jury -- a body composed of 12 individuals. One of whom, apparently, was somewhat reluctant to commit an act that history has since ruled inevitable.
Tribble told me he couldn't recall which juror, but said it in a way that made me wonder if he truly couldn't remember or if he could but didn't care to say. I ran some names by him, but he would neither confirm nor deny any of them, and fearing that the conversation might soon be coming to an end, I changed the subject and posed the question I had wanted to ask him for six years: Why did he vote to acquit?
He explained, quite simply, that he had concurred with the defense team's core argument: that the body fished out of the Tallahatchie River was not that of Emmett Till - who was, they claimed, still very much alive and hiding out in Chicago or Detroit or somewhere else up North - but someone else's, a corpse planted there by the N.A.A.C.P. for the express purpose of stirring up a racial tornado that would tear through Sumner, and through all of Mississippi, and through the rest of the South, for that matter.
Ray Tribble wasn't stupid. He was a sharp, measured man who had worked hard and done well for himself and his community. How, I asked him, could he buy such an argument? Hadn't Emmett Till's own mother identified the body of her son? Hadn't that body been found wearing a ring bearing the initials LT, for Louis Till, the boy's dead father?
Tribble looked at me earnestly. That body, he told me, his voice assuming a didactic tone, "had hair on its chest." And everybody knows, he continued, that "blacks don't grow hair on their chest until they get to be about 30."
The Bootstrapper In 1955, Joseph Wilson Kellum was a lawyer in Sumner, Miss. In 1995, he was still a lawyer in Sumner, and still practicing out of the same office, across the street from the courtroom where Bryant and Milam were tried and acquitted. J.W. Kellum was their defense attorney.
He was actually one of five; it is said that the defendants hired every lawyer in Sumner so that the state would not be able to appoint any of them a special prosecutor on the case. Kellum gave one of two closing statements for the defense, during which he told the jurors that they were "absolutely the custodians of American civilization" and implored them, "I want you to tell me where under God's shining sun is the land of the free and the home of the brave if you don't turn these boys loose - your forefathers will absolutely turn over in their graves!"
Kellum was a 28-year-old grocery clerk who had never attended college when, in 1939, he took the state bar exam, passed it and immediately started a solo law practice. For more than 50 years his office was a plain, squat concrete structure bulging with messy piles of books and files and papers, unremarkable but for its proximity to the courthouse. We talked there for 90 minutes, and he never once grew defensive or refused to answer a question. At the start, he told me, he had regarded the defense of Bryant and Milam as "just another case over the desk." Had he ever asked them if they killed Emmett Till?
"Yeah," he said, "they denied that they had did it."
I asked if he had believed them. "Yeah, I believed them," he replied, "just like I would if I was interrogating a client now. I would have no reason to think he's lying to me."
I quoted his statement about the jurors' forefathers turning over in their graves if the defendants were convicted. What had he meant by that? "Their forefathers, possibly, would not have ever convicted any white man for killing a black man," he explained. I asked Kellum if he'd had any misgivings about appealing to the jury's racial attitudes that way. "No, not at the time," he replied.
"Did you feel the same way at the time?" I asked.
"Not now," he said. He told me about a Vietnamese boy he sponsored in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. I restated the question. "Put it this way," he said. "I didn't feel that it was justifiable in killing an individual, regardless of what his color might be. I didn't think any white man had a right to kill an individual - black individual - like he was a dog."
How, then, could he have so passionately implored the jury, in his closing argument, to rule in a way that would nullify those very values? "I was trying to say something that would meet with - where they would agree with me, you see. Because I was employed to defend those fellas. And I was going to defend them as much as I could and stay within the law. Those statements were not - I received no admonition during the argument from the judge at all."
"So you just looked at it as part of your job?"
"Part of the day's work," he said.
Did he now believe that Bryant and Milam had, in fact, murdered Till?
"I would have to see something," he said. "But they told me they did not. They told the other lawyers that they did not. I have not seen anything where it was supposed to have been an admission of guilt on their part."
If that statement were true, it would make him quite possibly the only man alive at the time who had not read or at least heard about Huie's Look article. But I didn't press him on it, didn't call him a liar. The strange thing is that, in my memory, I had always pressed J.W. Kellum hard, maybe even a bit too hard; for 10 years, I felt a bit guilty about how pointedly I had posed difficult questions to a rather genial octogenarian who had graciously invited me into his office and offered me as much of his time as I wanted. Today, though, when I read through the transcript of that conversation, I can't help feeling that I was too easy on the man. I guess we all make accommodations with the past.
It's achingly difficult to dig up what you have spent a lifetime trying to push down. In recent years, Simeon Wright has moved slowly, steadily, inching his way toward revelation. He has faced what he wanted to put behind him, recalling the events surrounding the 1955 lynching of his 14-year-old cousin, Emmett Till.
As painful as it might be to relive a night of terror in his house on Dark Fear Road in Money, Mississippi, Wright endured an additional source of discomfort. With all the coverage and dramatic treatment of the Emmett Till story over nearly 55 years, too many people still were getting it wrong.
With his book, Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, written with the journalist Herb Boyd and published in January by Lawrence Hill Books, Wright intends to expose the errors of past renderings of the story and, in the process, gain some measure of justice. "I'm excited in a way that I get a chance to tell what actually happened," says Wright, 67, a retired pipe fitter who lives in west suburban Summit Argo.
What happened in 1955 not only became a cautionary tale for a generation of young African Americans learning about race relations but also lit a spark for the modern mass civil rights movement. The essentials of the story are familiar: The Chicagoan Emmett Till and his cousin Wheeler Parker Jr. were visiting the Wright family in August 1955. The boys, along with a group of friends and cousins, were in Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in Money when Emmett whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who was white and who owned the store with her husband, Roy Bryant.
"I think [Emmett] wanted to get a laugh out of us or something," Wright says. "He was always joking around, and it was hard to tell when he was serious."
This was no joking matter. The Mississippi Delta region was at the epicenter of an eruption, where "the Ku Klux Klan and night riders were part of our daily lives," Wright recalls in the book. All this was on Wright's mind when he heard that whistle.
"Well, it scared us half to death," he recalls in an interview. "You know, we were almost in shock. We couldn't get out of there fast enough, because we had never heard of anything like that before. A black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? No."
Still, everyone kept the promise not to tell Wright's father, Emmett's great-uncle, Moses Wright, whom Wright insists would have hustled Emmett out of town. When nothing was said or done over the next couple of days, the boys forgot about the incident.
But at 2 a.m. on August 28, Roy Bryant showed up at the Wright home with his half-brother, J. W. Milam. The two white men terrorized the Wright family and took Emmett from the bed he shared with Wright. Outside, a female voice could be heard saying Emmett was "the one." Emmett was taken away, beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, a 75-pound gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.
Although Bryant and Milam stood trial for murder, and Moses Wright courageously identified them in open court, they were acquitted by an all-white jury, only to later confess in Look magazine. The Wright family left Mississippi - forever - and relocated to suburban Chicago in search of a new life.
"I couldn't shake the many thoughts of him," Simeon Wright recalls in his book. All the questions that inevitably haunt the survivor: "What if we had stayed home that night? What if we had told Dad?"
Despite help from understanding teachers, Wright wound up looking for trouble�trying to express the pain that words could not describe. "Mostly every Saturday night, we would wait for the white boys to call us the N-word," he recalls in an interview.
"And we would get into fights." Clearly, this was not the right path. "Sooner or later, you can only have so many fights before someone pulls a gun."
At 24, Wright says he "committed my life to Christ" and found peace, along with forgiveness for Bryant and Milam. "You are compelled to do that," says Wright, now a deacon in the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, the church pastored by Till's cousin, the Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., and founded by Till's maternal grandmother, Alma Carthan. "You have to learn how to forgive those who have wronged you."
Even so, Wright says he remained troubled by what he insists is the persistent misreporting of Emmett's story. His book includes an appendix titled "Lies, Myths, and Distortions," in which he seeks to clarify several points with his eyewitness account and the results of an autopsy of Emmett's remains. Among Wright's clarifications: Despite testimony to the contrary, Emmett's wallet did not contain a photo of a white girl; no one dared Emmett to flirt with Carolyn Bryant, and he never spoke out of turn to her (as she later claimed at trial); Emmett was not castrated; he was not tortured with a drill bit.
Wright also denies one recent speculative assertion that Emmett was killed by a black man and not by his confessed killer J. W. Milam.
Even with the passage of time, Wright says he can't entirely escape the memories. "Certain sounds bring it back. Certain smells. Honeysuckle smell. Because honeysuckle was blooming that summer." Telling the story, setting it straight, already is making a difference, Wright believes - in his spirit, if not in court. "Hopefully, this book will be around as a record of what took place in Mississippi in 1955," he says. Perhaps, at least, there is some measure of justice in that.
For six decades, she has been the silent woman linked to one of the most notorious crimes in the nation's history, the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, keeping her thoughts and memories to herself as millions of strangers idealized or vilified her.
But all these years later, a historian says that the woman has broken her silence, and acknowledged that the most incendiary parts of the story she and others told about Emmett - claims that seem tame today but were more than enough to get a black person killed in Jim Crow-era Mississippi - were false.
The woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, spoke to Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University professor - possibly the only interview she has given to a historian or journalist since shortly after the episode - who has written a book, "The Blood of Emmett Till," to be published next week.
In it, he wrote that she said of her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, "that part is not true."
The revelations were first reported on Friday by Vanity Fair.
As a matter of narrow justice, it makes little difference; true or not, her claims did not justify any serious penalty, much less death.
The two white men who were accused of murdering Emmett in 1955 - and later admitted it in a Look Magazine interview - were acquitted that year by an all-white, all-male jury, and so could not be retried.
They and others suspected of involvement in the killing died long ago.
But among thousands of lynchings of black people, this one looms large in the country's tortured racial history, taught in history classes to schoolchildren, and often cited as one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement.
Photographs in Jet Magazine of Emmett's gruesomely mutilated body - at a funeral that his mother insisted have an open coffin, to show the world what his killers had done - had a galvanizing effect on black America.
The case has refused to fade, revived in a long list of writings and works of art, including, recently, "Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File," a book that unearths the case of Emmett's father, a soldier who was executed by the Army on charges of murder and rape.
The Justice Department began an investigation into the Emmett Till lynching in 2004, Emmett's body was exhumed for an autopsy, and the F.B.I. rediscovered the long-missing trial transcript. But in 2007, a grand jury decided not to indict Ms. Donham, or anyone else, as an accomplice in the murder.
"I was hoping that one day she would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction," said Wheeler Parker, 77, a cousin of Emmett's who lives near Chicago. "It's important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days."
Patrick Weems, project coordinator at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, a museum in Sumner, Miss., said, "I think until you break the silence, there is still that implied consent to the false narrative set forth in 1955."
"It matters that she recanted," he added.
Emmett, who lived in Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, a tiny hamlet in the Mississippi Delta region when, on Aug. 24, 1955, he went into a store owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, a married couple, and had his fateful encounter with Ms. Bryant, then 21.
Four days later, he was kidnapped from his uncle's house, beaten and tortured beyond recognition, and shot in the head. His body was tied with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.
Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam, were arrested and charged with murder.
What happened in that store is unclear, but it has usually been portrayed as an example of a black boy from up North unwittingly defying the strict racial mores of the South at the time. Witnesses said that Emmett wolf-whistled at Ms. Bryant, though even that has been called into doubt.
Days after the arrest, Ms. Bryant told her husband's lawyer that Emmett had insulted her, but said nothing about physical contact, Dr. Tyson said. Five decades later, she told the F.B.I. that he had touched her hand.
But at the trial, she testified - without the jury present - that Emmett had grabbed her hand, she pulled away, and he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and, using vulgar language, told her that he had been with white women before.
"She said that wasn't true, but that she honestly doesn't remember exactly what did happen," Dr. Tyson said in an interview on Friday.
Ms. Donham, now 82, could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Tyson said that in 2008, he got a call from Ms. Donham's daughter-in-law, who said they had liked another book of his, and wanted to meet him.
It was in that meeting that she spoke to him about the Till case, saying, "Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him."
Dr. Tyson said that motivated him to write about the case.
Ms. Donham told him that soon after the killing, her husband's family hid her away, moving her from place to place for days, to keep her from talking to law enforcement.
She has said that Roy Bryant, whom she later divorced, was physically abusive to her.
"The circumstances under which she told the story were coercive," Dr. Tyson said. "She's horrified by it. There's clearly a great burden of guilt and sorrow.
Devery S. Anderson, author of a 2015 history, "Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement," said, "I've encountered so many people who want someone be punished for the crime, to have anyone still breathing held responsible, and at this point, that's just her."
But what matters now, he said, is the truth. It has been clear for decades that she lied in court, he said, "to get it from her own mouth after so many years of silence is important."
For his part, Mr. Parker, a pastor, said he harbors no ill will toward Ms. Donham, and hopes that her admission brings her peace.
"I can't hate," he said. "Hate destroys the hater, too. That's a heavy burden to carry."
Mississippi was the epicenter of the racial terror lynchings in which thousands of African-American men, women and children were hanged, shot, drowned, dismembered or burned alive across the South between the end of the Civil War and the mid-20th century.
The case of the state's best-known victim - 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955 - stands out against this blood-drenched backdrop, both for the barbaric violence involved and because the murder helped to galvanize the modern civil rights movement.
Despite its obvious importance, the Till story remained shut out of Mississippi's civic life until 2005, when signs memorializing the lynching started to appear in public - and were targeted for desecration.
The defilement of the signs reflects the belief that Mississippi's public square should be reserved for Confederate memorials and other testaments to white supremacy. The realization that the symbolic landscape can either reinforce or contest racism is especially resonant at a time when cities, churches and schools are discarding Confederate names and iconography.
Emmett Till's murder illustrated how lynchings buttressed the school of white supremacy that marked black people for death for seeking the right to vote, talking back to white people or merely brushing against a white woman on the sidewalk. It also underscores the repugnancy of President Trump's attempt to characterize impeachment proceedings as a "lynching."
Emmett was visiting from Chicago when he had the misfortune of encountering a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a store owned by her husband, Roy, in Money, Miss. We may never know why Ms. Bryant took offense at her young customer. Nonetheless, days after the encounter at the store, Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam abducted Emmett from the home of Emmett's uncle, Moses Wright, tortured him and shot him in the head. The killers secured a heavy cotton gin fan to the child's neck with barbed wire and heaved his body into the Tallahatchie River.
The matter would have ended there had Emmett's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, allowed Mississippi authorities to bury her child. Instead, she brought the body to Chicago and used a glass-topped coffin that allowed mourners and newspaper readers around the globe to see the ravaged remains of what had once been Emmett's face.
In a book published two years ago, the historian Timothy Tyson reported that Ms. Bryant initially told her lawyer that the teenager had "insulted" her. But by the time of the trial, Mr. Tyson wrote, she had become "the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie," claiming that the child had spoken obscenities while grabbing her around the waist.
Aided by a contrived rape fantasy and an all-white jury, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of murder. Just months later, the two thumbed their noses at the Till family by confessing to the killing in Look magazine.
Local residents avoided discussing the case for fear of harassment from groups like the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan. The Mississippi Legislature struck an important blow against this enforced silence in 2005 when it renamed a 32-mile stretch of U.S. 49 East the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. As Dave Tell, author of the book "Remembering Emmett Till," pointed out recently, the road sign unleashed white supremacist rage.
"Less than a year after it was dedicated, the Till sign on U.S. 49 was spray-painted with the letters ‘KKK,'" Mr. Tell wrote in The Chicago Tribune. "Since that time, Emmett Till signs have been stolen, thrown in the river, replaced, shot, replaced again, shot again and defaced with acid. The vandalism has been targeted and it has been persistent."
A similar response erupted when a memorial sign was erected at the spot along the Tallahatchie River where Emmett's mutilated body was pulled from the water. The first sign was stolen and thrown into the river. The second and third signs were shot through with bullets.
The acts of desecration were so widely accepted as normal that three University of Mississippi fraternity brothers posed triumphantly in front of the bullet-riddled sign, two of them holding weapons. Earlier this year, one of them posted that picture on Instagram.
Mr. Tell rightly likens the photo to a trophy picture of hunters smiling over the body of an animal. The proud faces and drawn weapons add an element of racial terrorism to the defilement. The newest replacement sign, dedicated on Saturday just outside Glendora, Miss., weighs 500 pounds - too much to be easily carted away - and is said to be bulletproof.
The assaults on the markers eerily mirror the violence inflicted upon Emmett Till, reflecting a longstanding attempt by white supremacists to silence fellow citizens who have made it their mission to speak openly about the state's blood-drenched history.
Emmett Till, age 14, was kidnapped and murdered 65 years ago today in Mississippi and the family of Till continues to seek justice. The family's pain is still raw, but they have continued to fight for justice and empower families who have lost loved ones to racial violence. Founded in 2005, The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, honors the memory of Emmett Till, inspire families, women, and youth for a better future. The Foundation has joined forces with others to fight for criminal justice reform, civil, human rights, and racism.
On August 24, 1955, Till and his cousins, Simeon Wright and Wheeler Parker, went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Marker to buy refreshments and candy. Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old white female clerk, and wife of the store owner, Roy Bryant, said that Till whistled at her. Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and drove Till to a barn, beat and lynched him. They dragged his body to the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a massive metal cotton gin fan, and shoved his body into the water. Emmett Till's gruesome murder shocked the nation and sparked and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
Mamie Till courageously had Emmett's body on full display for five days at his funeral. Thousands of people came to view the body at Roberts Temple Church of God and Christ. Two black publications, the Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine published photos of Till's corpse. After being acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955, Bryant and Milam confessed to Look Magazine for $4,000 that they killed Emmett Till a year later. Bryant died September 1, 1994, and Milam died December 31, 1980.
On the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation's website, the late Simeon Wright, Till's cousin, and an eyewitness to his kidnapping says, "J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant died with Emmett Till's blood on their hands. And it looks like everyone else who was involved is going to do the same. They had a chance to come clean. They will die with Emmett Till's blood on their hands."
In a 2007 interview with Timothy Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till , Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted that she lied about Till making advances toward her. The Donham family stated in the 2018 article in the Clarion Ledger that she was misquoted. Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, are buried at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL.
Till's family, Ald. Jeanette Taylor and preservationists are working on getting official landmark status at 6427 S. St. Lawrence where Mamie and Emmett Till lived. Ald. Taylor will be writing a letter to the landmark commission requesting the designation. Ald. Taylor told news reporters, "The house definitely needs to be preserved …. It's a piece of history that cannot leave this ward."
A team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence about the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till has found the unserved warrant charging a white woman in his 1955 kidnapping, and relatives of the victim want authorities to finally arrest her nearly 70 years later.
A warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham - identified as "Mrs. Roy Bryant" on the document - was discovered last week by searchers inside a file folder that had been placed in a box, Leflore County Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Documents are kept inside boxes by decade, he said, but there was nothing else to indicate where the warrant, dated Aug. 29, 1955, might have been.
"They narrowed it down between the '50s and '60s and got lucky," said Stockstill, who certified the warrant as genuine.
The search group included members of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and two Till relatives: cousin Deborah Watts, head of the foundation; and her daughter, Teri Watts. Relatives want authorities to use the warrant to arrest Donham, who at the time of the slaying was married to one of two white men tried and acquitted just weeks after Till was abducted from a relative's home, killed and dumped into a river.
"Serve it and charge her," Teri Watts told the AP in an interview.
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary film "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" preceded a renewed Justice Department probe that ended without charges in 2007, was also part of the search. He said there's enough new evidence to prosecute Donham.
Donham set off the case in August 1955 by accusing the 14-year-old Till of making improper advances at a family store in Money, Mississippi. A cousin of Till who was there has said Till whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi's racist social codes of the era.
Evidence indicates a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to the men who later killed him. The arrest warrant against Donham was publicized at the time, but the Leflore County sheriff told reporters he did not want to "bother" the woman since she had two young children to care for.
Now in her 80s and most recently living in North Carolina, Donham has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution. But Teri Watts said the Till family believes the warrant accusing Donham of kidnapping amounts to new evidence.
"This is what the state of Mississippi needs to go ahead," she said.
District Attorney Dewayne Richardson, whose office would prosecute a case, declined comment on the warrant but cited a December report about the Till case from the Justice Department, which said no prosecution was possible.
Contacted by the AP on Wednesday, Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks said: "This is the first time I've known about a warrant."
Banks, who was 7 years old when Till was killed, said "nothing was said about a warrant" when a former district attorney investigated the case five or six years ago.
"I will see if I can get a copy of the warrant and get with the DA and get their opinion on it," Banks said. If the warrant can still be served, Banks said, he would have to talk to law enforcement officers in the state where Donham resides.
t is my fervent desire that my story will shed light on what happened, at least as I knew and remembered it, and illuminate my small part in this tragedy."
It is my fervent desire that my story will shed light on what happened, at least as I knew and remembered it, and illuminate my small part in this tragedy... I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett. He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation. Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no! Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss of his life. I paid dearly with an altered life... I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn't know what was planned for him. I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘He's not the one. That's not him. Please take him home... To my utter disbelief, the young man flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,' or something to that effect.
The three of them left the store with the young man walking in between. I really wanted to believe he was going to take him back home. I melted into the kitchen chair like a limp doll when they left the room. I heard Roy tell J.W. and his friend to take him back home. I knew that he would be okay; shaken up maybe, scared but okay...
I have always prayed that God would bless Emmett's family. I am truly sorry for the pain his family was caused.
The white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 says she neither identified him to the killers nor wanted him murdered.
In an unpublished memoir obtained by the Associated Press, Carolyn Bryant Donham says she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed and tossed in a river. Now 87, Donham was only 21 at the time.
Her then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam were acquitted of murder charges but later confessed in a magazine interview.
The contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled I am More Than A Wolf Whistle, were first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Historian and author Timothy Tyson of Durham, who said he obtained a copy from Donham while interviewing her in 2008, provided a copy to the AP on Thursday.
Tyson had placed the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the agreement that it not be made public for decades, though he said he gave it to the FBI during an investigation the agency concluded last year. He said he decided to make it public now following the recent discovery of an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges that was issued for Donham in 1955 but never served.
"The potential for an investigation was more important than the archival agreements, though those are important things," Tyson said. "But this is probably the last chance for an indictment in this case."
A cousin of Till who leads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, Deborah Watts, said the memoir is new evidence that shows Donham's involvement in the case and is particularly important when combined with the arrest warrant. "I truly believe these developments cannot be ignored by the authorities in Mississippi," she said.
In the memoir, Donham says she attempted to help Till once he'd been located by her husband and brother-in-law and brought to her in the middle of the night for identification.
"I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn't know what was planned for him," Donham says in the manuscript compiled by her daughter-in-law. "I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘He's not the one. That's not him. Please take him home.'" She claims in the manuscript that Till, who had been dragged from a family home at gunpoint in the middle of the night, spoke up and identified himself.
Donham adds that she "always felt like a victim as well as Emmett" and "paid dearly with an altered life" for what happened to him.
"I have always prayed that God would bless Emmett's family. I am truly sorry for the pain his family was caused," she says at the end of the manuscript, which is signed "Carolyn" but indicates that it was written by her daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant.
The memoir is remarkable not only because it's the most extensive account of the sensational episode ever recorded by Donham, but also because it contains contradictions that raise questions about her truthfulness through the years, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the case more than 15 years ago.
For instance, Donham claims in the memoir to have yelled for help after being confronted by Till inside the family grocery store in Money, Mississippi, yet no one ever reported hearing her screams, Killinger said. Also, Donham never previously mentioned that she and Roy Bryant chatted about the abduction. In the manuscript, she says they did.
"That seems ludicrous," Killinger said. "How would you have a major event in your life and not talk about it?"
The justice department closed its most recent investigation into the case in December and Mississippi authorities haven't given any indication they plan to pursue the kidnapping warrant or other charges against Donham. But the Till family is pushing authorities to act.
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker whose documentary preceded the justice department investigation in which Killinger was involved and that ended without charges in 2007, said the memoir shows that Donham "is culpable in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till and to not hold her accountable for her actions, is an injustice to us all".
"Our fight will continue until justice is finally served," Beauchamp said.
It was Beauchamp, along with two of Till's relatives, who discovered the arrest warrant with Donham's name on it earlier this month in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse.
Tyson, the historian who provided the roughly 35,000-word manuscript to the AP, helped spur the government's most recent investigation into the killing by publishing a book in 2017 in which he quoted Donham as saying she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances. In the memoir, however, she claims Till did do those things. During the most recent investigation, Donham told the FBI she had never recanted, the justice department said.
Tyson said Donham's statements in the memoir exonerating herself of wrongdoing need to be taken with "a good-sized shovel full of salt", particularly her claim that Till identified himself to the men who took him from the family home and later admitted killing him.
"Two big white men with guns came and dragged him out of his aunt and great-uncle's house at 2 o'clock in the morning in the Mississippi Delta in 1955. I do not believe for one minute that he identified himself," Tyson said.
Neither Donham nor any of her relatives have responded to messages and phone calls from the AP seeking comment. It is unclear where Donham currently lives or if she has an attorney. Her last known address was in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A grand jury in Mississippi has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation set off the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, despite revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and a newly revealed memoir by the woman, a prosecutor said on Tuesday.
A grand jury in Leflore county in the north-western part of the state considered evidence and testimony regarding Carolyn Bryant Donham's involvement in the kidnapping and death of Till, the local district attorney, Dewayne Richardson, said in a news release.
After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, the grand jury determined that there was not sufficient evidence to indict Donham, Richardson said. The panel also considered charges of kidnapping and manslaughter.
The news that the grand jury had declined to charge Donham makes it increasingly unlikely that she will ever be prosecuted for her role in the events that led to Till's death.
A group searching the basement of the Leflore county courthouse in June discovered the unserved arrest warrant charging Donham, her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, JW Milam, in Till's abduction in 1955. While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in Till's subsequent slaying, Donham, 21 at the time and 87 now, was never taken into custody.
In an unpublished memoir obtained last month by the Associated Press, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed and tossed in a river. She accused him of making lewd comments and grabbing her while she worked alone at a family store in Money, Mississippi.
Donham said in the manuscript that the men brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to help the youth by denying it was him. Despite being abducted at gunpoint from a family home by Roy Bryant and Milam, Till identified himself to the men, she claimed.
Till's battered, disfigured body was found days later in a river, where it was weighted down with a heavy metal fan. The decision by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till's casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and added fuel to the civil rights movement.