The uncovered warrant, reportedly not served because a Mississippi sheriff sympathized with Donham’s status as a mother of two small children (though apparently not with grieving mother Mamie Till-Mobley) reveals the contingent nature of history.
Opinion by Peniel Joseph
What does it say about America that we are still in search of justice for the victim of an almost 70-year-old crime that helped spark the modern civil rights movement?
Emmett Till’s legacy, both tragic and empowering, continues to reverberate as we approach the 67th anniversary of his lynching next month. The 14-year-old Black teenager from Chicago was murdered in 1955 in Money, Mississippi — for allegedly speaking to a White woman in the Deep South — and became the first martyr of the modern civil rights era. Till’s death sent shockwaves across America and around the world, especially after his mother allowed his disfigured body — which had been dumped in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton gin fan tied to it — to be viewed and photographed in an open casket. That picture was immortalized in the pocket-sized African American publication Jet Magazine — and propelled a transformative moment in the national understanding of what Jim Crow racism looked like.
Two recently uncovered pieces of evidence have prompted renewed calls for legal action in the case — even as they have exposed the historical record as incomplete and spotlighted how woefully short America has fallen in its efforts to fully account for a racist horror whose afterlife is still unfolding.
The first, an unserved arrest warrant charging Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam and Bryant’s then-wife, Carolyn Bryant Donham (the woman who wrongfully accused Till of making an advance to her), with unlawful kidnapping has spurred the Till family and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation to call for someone to finally pay for Till’s murder. Shamefully, Bryant and Milam were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder — only to later confess their story to Look Magazine for thousands of dollars while indemnified from further justice by double jeopardy. Donham is still alive, in her late 80s.
The second is a 99-page unpublished memoir, first reported on by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and obtained by CNN. It had been held for release until 2036 due to an agreement with Donham and historian Timothy Tyson (author of the 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till”) and the University of North Carolina. Tyson told CNN he gave copies of the draft memoir to news outlets after news of the unserved warrant emerged. “I decided that if there was going to be a re-investigation, that criminal justice outweighs the archival agreement,” Tyson told CNN, which has been unable to reach Donham for comment.
Donham’s complicity with racist structures of power during the early civil rights era forms a small part of a larger pattern of injustice that continues to haunt American democracy. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the name “Karen” became a viral meme in popular culture, reserved for a White woman who weaponized her privilege. Much of the analysis centered on White women policing Black behavior by calling the police when African American bodies — their very presence — seemed to disturb them. Or, as in the case of Amy Cooper, when a Black person disrupted their privilege.
But the phenomenon that the term “Karen” reveals has always been more about power and the ability to enact physical violence than mere privilege. In this sense, Donham is the civil rights movement’s ultimate “Karen,” a White woman whose actions did not just embarrass, threaten or humiliate Black lives. Her actions helped to extinguish the bright light that was Till.
Her memoir contradicts an interview she gave to the FBI during a 2004 reinvestigation into Till’s death where she said the young man said nothing when her then-husband brought him to her before his death. The draft alleges that Till admitted to his killers that he had spoken to her in a way that violated the South’s racial conduct rules between Blacks and Whites, especially with respect to speaking to White women. What we do know is that Donham’s actions contributed to the lynching of a Black teenager from Chicago who had his whole life ahead of him. Till, if he had been allowed to live, would be celebrating his 81st birthday on July 25.
These latest revelations add further layers of anger, grief and unresolved questions about her culpability in Till’s fate — and highlight the unsettled, unfinished nature of Till’s legacy in American history. The full extent of his tragedy has yet to be confronted.
What we can say for sure is that the murderous violence of that era was never confined to the physical brutality of White men. White women played important roles, as active and passive supporters, in maintaining Black political and social disenfranchisement. The role of White women in maintaining structural racism from antebellum slavery to the civil rights era, to more recent instances of false accusations by White women represent an aspect of American history that still receives too little attention.
Ironically, the news of the unserved arrest warrant and further questions regarding the veracity of Donham’s testimony comes the summer after President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act of 2022 in a White House Rose Garden ceremony that represented the culmination of decades of work to finally make lynching a federal crime.
The federal anti-lynching law bearing Till’s name reflects the intersection of political symbolism and substance. Till’s Chicago home, where he was reared by his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, has just received a preservation grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that will help to ensure that the Till family legacy resonates well into the 21st century. The preservation of Till’s home, along with other important Black cultural sites, means that new generations will be introduced to living legacies of a past that continues to shape contemporary American reality.
Before Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black teen shot and killed in 2012 by a vigilante while visiting his father in Florida, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, there was Emmett Till. Till’s death sent up a flare to a generation of African American civil rights activists, marking a before and after in their political understanding of the high stakes of systemic racism and White supremacy in America.
The Emmett Till Generation turned into the Civil Rights Generation, and activists from around the nation dreamed of an America — including Mississippi, where Till was slaughtered — where Black children could have a prosperous future devoid of violence, hatred and the threat of premature death.
Calls for action based on this new information about Donham have, so far, gone unheeded. In 2007, a grand jury decided not to indict her for the role she played in identifying Till to his assailants. Last year, the Department of Justice and the Mississippi grand jury convened to investigate and closed the case after she denied recanting her testimony. Till’s family continues, as of 2022, to meet with Justice Department officials in their apparently never-ending quest for justice for his death.
For me, as a civil rights movement historian, these new revelations about Donham add more shape and texture and detail to the archival record. They show us the precarity of historical memory and the way in which institutional power is also personal.
The uncovered warrant, reportedly not served because a Mississippi sheriff sympathized with Donham’s status as a mother of two small children (though apparently not with grieving mother Mamie Till-Mobley) reveals the contingent nature of history. Events did not have to transpire — in the aftermath of Till’s death — in the manner that they did.
Donham’s unpublished memoir shows that the Pandora’s box opened by Till’s brutal death remains opened. The bloody wound of his passing is still unhealed.
We will never be able to precisely recreate the events that led to Till’s death, but this new information will allow future generations a window into a past American life that they can, hopefully, regard as a sad chapter that should be remembered in order to make sure it is never repeated.