Till's Accuser's Memoir Shows the Pandora's Box She Opened has Never ClosedRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, lynching, Emmett Till, Mississippi
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.”
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.
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