What does the fact that we are still looking for justice for the victim of a nearly 70-year-old crime that served as the impetus for the modern civil rights movement say about America?
As we all get closer to the 67th anniversary of his lynching next month, Emmett Till’s terrible and inspirational legacy continues to resonate. As the first martyr of the modern civil rights period, the 14-year-old Black adolescent from Chicago was killed in Money, Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly speaking to a White woman in the Deep South. After Till’s mother permitted his mangled body to be seen and photographed in an open casket, which had been dumped in the Tallahatchie River with a large cotton gin fan hooked to it, his death shocked both the United States and the rest of the world. This image helped change how the country perceived Jim Crow bigotry at a national level after it was published in the small-format African American magazine Jet.
Even as they reveal the historical record as lacking and highlight how tragically short America has failed in its efforts to properly account for a racist horror whose afterlife is still unfolding, two recently discovered pieces of evidence have generated renewed calls for judicial action in the case.
First, an unfilled arrest warrant accusing Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, and Bryant’s ex-wife Carolyn Bryant Donham of unlawful kidnapping prompted the Till family and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation to demand that someone be held accountable for Till’s murder. Donham had falsely claimed that Till had made an advance on her. Embarrassingly, Bryant and Milam were tried for Till’s murder and found not guilty; nevertheless, they afterwards sold their narrative to Look Magazine for a sum of money in order to avoid additional punishment due to double jeopardy. Donham, who is in her late 80s, is still alive.
The second is a 99-page unpublished memoir that was obtained by CNN after being originally made public by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. A deal between Donham, historian Timothy Tyson (author of the 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till”), and the University of North Carolina had delayed its distribution until 2036. After learning of the unfulfilled warrant, Tyson told CNN that he sent copies of the draught memoir to other news organisations. CNN, which was unable to reach Donham for comment, quoted Tyson as saying, “I determined that if there was going to be a re-investigation, that criminal justice supersedes the archival agreement.”