Why Did She Lie about Emmett Till?

tags: Emmett Till, Carolyn Bryant

Anders Walker teaches law and history at Saint Louis University and is the author of the forthcoming book, "The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Paradox of Diversity" (Yale University Press). 

Emmett Till at Christmas 1954 taken by Mamie Till Bradley

Few crimes loom larger in American civil rights history than the murder of Emmett Till. Killed by two white men in Mississippi in the summer of 1955, Till’s death proved a rallying cry for the civil rights movement, particularly after his mother removed her son’s corpse from Mississippi to Chicago, placing it on public display in a lurid wake that horrified the nation. The subsequent acquittal of Till’s killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, only further stoked outrage as the legal proceeding came to be viewed as a charade, evidence of the savage white racism that stalked the American South during Jim Crow.

Yet, the story of Till’s death may not be as straightforward as many have come to believe. In his recent book, The Blood of Emmett Till, historian Timothy Tyson reveals that Carolyn Bryant, the woman who Till allegedly accosted, lied on the stand. According to her trial testimony, Till had entered the general store where she worked and assaulted her, first by grabbing her wrist and then by chasing her “down” the counter and placing his hands on her waist. According to Tyson, however, this was not true. Bryant confessed to him in a personal interview half a century later that Till had never chased her or “clutched” her waist, and that he had not deserved the fate he received.

So why did she lie?

According to Tyson, Bryant acted on fears gripping Mississippi at the time, including a general “panic” stirred by a state judge named Thomas Pickens Brady (pronounced Braddy) who warned that the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate public schools would spark a wave of interracial sex. In a speech delivered mere weeks after the ruling, Brady warned that young blacks would become emboldened by the Court’s edict, try to date white women, and even rape them. After a while, interracial sex, or what Brady termed “amalgamation,” would become so rampant that it would ruin southern civilization, diluting the civilized traits of white Europeans with the primitive traits of blacks. Brady’s apocalyptic vision inspired the formation of an anti-integration group called the Citizens’ Councils, a lobby of influential, educated folks that exploded in popularity across the state, diligently printing and disseminating Brady’s words in what came to be known as his “Black Monday” speech.

That Carolyn Bryant became caught up in Brady’s paranoia is possible, to be sure. However, her initial descriptions of her encounter with Till did not include any reference to violence or rape. Till said something to her, she explained, but he did not touch her. Her husband, Roy Bryant, seemed to corroborate this, only mentioning that the teenager had uttered an offensive “remark” to his wife, not tried to rape her.

Even if Bryant had been agitated by Brady’s interpretation of Brown, in other words, this does not necessarily explain why she lied about her interaction with Till. If Till propositioned her, for example, why not simply say so at trial? Why embellish the facts?

At least two possibilities warrant consideration. One, Carolyn Bryant lied on the stand because she feared that her husband might actually be convicted. According to historian Julie Novkov, certain unwritten norms governed altercations between black men and white women in the Jim Crow South, and not all offenses warranted execution. Bryant’s husband, a violent alcoholic, seemed to realize this, later confessing to a reporter that his intention was not to kill Till – but to beat him. Only after Till refused to show contrition, he claimed, did he decide to take his life. Of course, this was no excuse, certainly not to murder; and actually made Bryant look worse, guilty not simply of violating the written law of the state of Mississippi, but also the unwritten law of Jim Crow, a law that did not provide for killing on the grounds of words alone.

But would the jury really have acquitted Bryant? Probably not. By the time Bryant was hauled into court, the trial was no longer just about the death of Emmett Till. Most scholars agree that the verdict was less a nod of approval to Bryant than a nod of disapproval to the outside scrutiny generated by the case. If Brown sparked a panic, in other words, it also stoked a sense of regional defiance that made Roy Bryant’s acquittal all but assured.

So why did Carolyn lie?

The real reason may have been personal. Once on the stand, she found herself in a very different place than she had been immediately after the event. Her husband had been arrested, she had been subpoenaed, and Till had risen from the grave. Mamie Bradley, Emmett’s mother, had ordered her son’s corpse exhumed in Mississippi, transported to Chicago, and put on public display in what was arguably the most disturbing, nightmarish wake in American history. The sheer horror of thousands of Americans viewing images of the mutilated teen’s body may have rattled Bryant, for the message behind the display was clear. Mississippi whites, like herself, were not scions of civilization fighting to keep black savages at bay – like Judge Brady had declared – but rather they were the savages, bloodthirsty monsters bent on killing children.

This was no minor issue. Performances of racial superiority had long undergirded southern white society, and had long assumed the garb of civility, manners, and refinement. Though violence was a part of Jim Crow, to be sure, non-violence also played a role in propping up the system, lending credence to white arguments that blacks could not be integrated because they had not developed sufficiently, but rather remained too primitive, too promiscuous, and too violent. Whites by contrast were peaceful and orderly, and they segregated themselves not out of a perverse desire to repress Negroes, they claimed, but out of a perfectly reasonable desire to preserve themselves. This was why Jim Crow existed, they said, not to repress but to protect and uplift.

Mamie Bradley turned this narrative on its head, recasting Jim Crow as a murder chamber and Mississippi whites as sociopathic killers. The NAACP followed suit, disseminating a brochure titled M is for Mississippi and Murder that focused on the Till case and painted white southerners as savage killers.

Enter Carolyn Bryant. As the courtroom buzzed with reporters from New York and Chicago, she may have sensed that her testimony was relevant not only to her husband’s fate, but her own. Rather than tell the truth, she decided to counter the negative image of whites like herself and her husband that Mamie Bradley had endeavored successfully to project. Till was no innocent child, asserted Carolyn, he was precisely the kind of violent menace that Tom Brady had feared. By testifying that Till had physically attacked her, she cast her husband and herself as reasonable citizens, not sadistic maniacs, and Till an aggressive criminal. Of course, this was technically not a legal defense, but law may not have motivated her. Her decision to lie on the stand may ultimately have had less to do with influencing the outcome of the case than with shaping popular opinion of herself, her husband, and the white South. If she told the truth, she risked playing into the hands of the NAACP; making her family look like pathological killers. If she embellished, however, then she emerged the victim, and Till the villain.

Even if Carolyn Bryant was not thinking along these lines, other whites in the South were. Robert Penn Warren wrote a short book on civil rights that addressed Till’s death, noting that a gang of blacks had taken revenge by raping a white woman in Memphis, a crime that received little coverage in the northern press. William Faulkner also expressed anger at the killing, declaring that the murder of children only weakened the South’s credibility. Meanwhile, a young writer from Alabama named Harper Lee delivered a manuscript to her agent in the spring of 1957 – two years after the killing – that directly referenced Brady’s “Black Monday” speech and countered it with the story of a white lawyer who defended a young black man accused of rape, and won.

The lawyer’s name was Atticus Finch, and the book’s narrator was his daughter Jean Louise, who returned to Alabama from New York not long after Brown was decided only to find her father embittered by the NAACP. Jean Louise recoiled at her father’s anger, in part because he had once represented a “colored boy” accused of rape, “took his stand before a jury,” and “won an acquittal.”

The trial echoed the Till case, with two twists. First, the boy was not killed by a white vigilante but was put on trial. Second, the white community, including not just Finch but also the jury, supported the black youth. The story created the impression that race relations in the South had been good, but the NAACP had shattered good feelings by winning Brown. This became clear when Atticus agreed to take the case of another black client, his former maid Calpurnia’s son Zeebo, who had killed a white man in an accidental hit and run. “[T]he NAACP lawyers are standing around like buzzards down here waiting for things like this to happen,” he lamented, prompting him to take the case before they heard word of it.

If Carolyn Bryant feared that Brown would throw the races together through “amalgamation,” Lee seemed convinced that Brown was driving the races apart. And if Bryant had tried to make white southerners look more sympathetic by painting Till in the dark tones of a violent aggressor, Lee countered by penning a story about an innocent black defendant represented by a conscientious white attorney who drew from a compassionate white community’s inherent decency to save a “colored boy.”

It was a good response, but Lee’s editor rejected it. Tay Hohoff returned the manuscript and urged Lee to do a substantive rewrite, retelling the story from the perspective of a young child. The young Alabaman complied, moving the story back in time, from the 1950s to the 1930s, and recasting Jean Louise as a young girl nicknamed Scout. Scout told the story of her father, Atticus, who agreed to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, also falsely accused of rape by a white woman. But in the new version, Lee provided more details about the woman, named Mayella Ewell, who belonged to a poor white family, “the disgrace of Maycomb,” who lived near the town dump “like animals,” and who had actually tried to seduce Robinson. Though Lee did not indicate whether Carolyn Bryant was the inspiration for Mayella, the idea that a certain class of white women might be willing to have sex with black men was not uncommon in the South. Courts sometimes even considered whether white women who accused black men of rape might have been prostitutes, and therefore undeserving of redress. Incidentally, this could have been another reason for Carolyn Bryant’s lie. She did not want to make it look like she had invited Till’s affections, so she exaggerated his conduct.

Lee seemed to follow the outcome of Till’s case more closely in her second story, this time ending the trial with a loss. She also provided a glimpse into the rationale behind the South’s system of segregation. In his closing argument, Atticus explained to the jury that if Mayella Ewell had only adhered to the “time-honored code” of segregation – and not tried to seduce Tom Robinson – then he would never have been charged with the crime of rape. This was why the “code” existed, argued Finch, to promote interracial harmony and preserve the peace.

Though few noticed it, Finch’s soliloquy provided a nuanced restatement of Tom Brady’s “Black Monday” speech; basically the idea that segregation preventing unwanted sexual liaisons. But it was more sophisticated, and more sympathetic. In fact, it was so sympathetic that readers in the North misinterpreted Atticus as a racial liberal, and the book as a paean to civil rights. It was not. It was a defense of the white South, much like Carolyn Bryant’s testimony, but better conceived, better executed, and more endearing. But it too was a lie. Segregation, at its core, was not a code of conduct that protected black men by keeping them away from white women, it was a repressive legal regime that cemented white dominance.

The need to rationalize that dominance in terms other than brute violence was why, at the end of the day, Carolyn Bryant lied. 

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