Will Emmett Till’s accuser learn you can’t outlive justice?
It has been an important year for the memory and impact of Emmett Till’s life and terrible death. That alone shows how slow justice can be for people of color in America.
In January, 67 years after he was murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi, Till was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress bestows. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, was also honored posthumously. She died in 2003. Her insistence on an open casket at her son’s funeral in 1955 showed the public not only the brutality inflicted on her son, but the wickedness of the ideology that caused it. Till was abducted, tortured and killed after allegedly whistling at a white woman in Leflore County. He was 14. His murder was a watershed moment for the Civil Rights Movement. In the long, sad list of Black men whose unjust killing has inspired change in this country, Till’s name is near the top.
On June 29, we got more Till news. A search of the basement at the Leflore County courthouse turned up an unserved warrant for the white woman offended by Till’s alleged whistle — Carolyn Bryant Donham, identified as Mrs. Roy Bryant in the warrant.
Donham was 21 in 1955, working at a store in Money, Mississippi. She claimed, and later testified under oath, that Till had propositioned her and touched her hand, arm and waist. Other witnesses say Till did none of those things and the extent of his attention toward Donham was contained in that whistle. Of course, none of those accusations warranted what happened two nights later when Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till from the home of relatives where he was staying, brutalized him, used barbed wire to tie a 75-pound cotton gin fan to him, and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River.
Bryant and Milam stood trial and were acquitted by an all-white jury. Then they promptly confessed to the murder in an account published in Look magazine in January 1956.
There were reports of a warrant for Donham’s arrest in 1955, but the sheriff then told reporters he didn’t want to “bother” the woman since she had two young children to care for, according to a HuffPost summary of the case. That was a troubling concession considering what Till’s mother was enduring.
Till’s descendants are calling on Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks to serve the newly found warrant.
The case has had a series of starts and stops, hampered by the absence of federal hate crimes in 1955 and the statute of limitations on state crimes in the decades since Mississippi has developed the will to prosecute racial terror.
Donham’s truthfulness is still very much in question, but only knowledge of what really happened rides on it. Perjury is not a federal offense and the statute of limitations for prosecuting it in Mississippi has long since passed. A Department of Justice summary of the case includes these bitter lines: “the government does not take the position that the state court testimony the woman gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate. There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events, which is contradicted by others who were with Till at the time.”
At this point, with Donham in her 80s and any potential case facing so many legal roadblocks, her arrest might be more symbolic than anything. But symbolism matters. Officials should pursue this wherever the law takes them.
After all, it’s worth remembering that lynching carried its own symbolic message — namely, that there was a code that operated outside the law to oppress people of color. Lynching was terrorism.
The lamentable thing here is that injustice can go unanswered this long. When it does, it leaves long-lasting wounds. The best we can do now is remember Emmett Till and other victims of racial injustice, and resolve to prevent more stories like theirs.
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