Emmett Till’s 1955 killing continues to raise questions. Three books on his death have been published in the past two years.
Courtesy of family
JACKSON, Miss. — The family of Emmett Till would like to see authorities explore new questions surrounding his 1955 murder.
Those questions arose because Carolyn Bryant Donham has admitted she lied when she testified that Till touched her — a lie she repeated to the FBI a decade ago.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Donham was quoted as saying.
Bryant admitted her lie to Tim Tyson, author of the new book, The Blood of Emmett Till, but she never gave a reason why.
“There needs to be a revisiting of the evidence in light of this revelation,” said Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts of Minneapolis.
In 1955, an all-white jury acquitted Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, of murdering Till — only for them to confess months later to Lookmagazine they had indeed beaten and killed the 14-year-old teen from Chicago.
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Watts, board president of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, praised Donham for her courage in daring to speak now.
“I hope she’s trying to clear her conscience,” said Wheeler Parker of Chicago, who rode on the train with Till from Chicago to Mississippi in 1955. “My job as a pastor is to get people to clear their consciences and get right with God.”
Carolyn Bryant poses for a photo in 1955 when she was at the center of the trial of Emmett Till’s alleged killers. After a divorce and second marriage, she is now known as Carolyn Donham.
Gene Herrick, AP
He said he has long supported the idea of giving Donham immunity from prosecution in exchange for her telling everything she knows.
“The Bible says you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” he said. “I’m like a bird who’s been in a cage. I’m halfway out of the cage now. That would get me all the way out.”
Parker said he supports the Justice Department looking again at Till’s slaying, but “I don’t know what else they could do.”
He praised the relentless work of FBI agent Dale Killinger on the case, saying, “He did as thorough a job as you can do, unless she’s willing to do more talking.”
Donham has written about her experiences in the Till case in an unpublished memoir, More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham.
The memoir won’t be available for public inspection at the University of North Carolina archives until 2036 or until she dies, but authorities could subpoena her words.
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That happened in 1988 when a grand jury subpoenaed an interview that one-time Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers gave the Mississippi Department of Archives and History with the understanding it wouldn’t be public until his death.
Months later, a jury convicted Bowers of ordering the 1966 murder of Vernon Dahmer, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Parker would like to see authorities get their hands on the memoir — something he wants to read. “You can’t bring Emmett back, but knowing the truth can set you free,” he said.
Watts agreed, saying she and other relatives want to know what really happened to Till that fateful day of Aug. 28, 1955, where he was beaten and shot to death.
“However we can acquire truth in a legal sense, we would want that,” she said. “We would want prosecution, if warranted, but if not, we want the truth.”
More than anything, Till’s mother wanted the truth, she said. “Mamie wasn’t interested in anyone going to jail.”
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So far, Mississippi and federal authorities aren’t commenting.
Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, whose work helped lead to the FBI reopening the case in 2004, said Wednesday, “We have engaged in communications with appropriate authorities and are waiting for the appropriate response at the appropriate time.”
Immunity is one possible option, he said. “Sometimes you can get further in the pursuit of truth outside of a prosecution than you can inside.”
Before the 1955 trial of her then-husband ended, Donham took the witness stand and testified outside the presence of the Tallahatchie County, Miss., jury that Till grabbed her, asked for a date and said he had been “with white women before.”
After the FBI reopened the case, Killinger spoke to Donham, who divorced Bryant in 1975 and later remarried.
She repeated the story about Till she had previously testified to, telling Killinger that “as soon as he touched me, I started screaming.”
Notes obtained by The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reveal that Carolyn Bryant gave a different story when she spoke first to defense lawyers in 1955, saying Till “insulted” her, but mentioned nothing about touching her.
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In 2007, a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood, Miss., declined to indict her in connection with the killing after considering a range of charges from aiding and abetting murder to manslaughter to accessory after the fact.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband, Medgar, investigated the Till killing, said she believes the case deserves another examination.
“I think America needs to look into the end results of this travesty and see what can be done in the future to prevent a replay of it,” she said.
Parker said the lie that Till was a “sexual predator” has staying power.
Not that long ago, he visited a school where a white student told him that Till had “misbehaved and did something he shouldn’t have done.”
If Donham would tell the truth, “she could clear the air on a lot of things,” he said. “She’s made a good start.”
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