Emmitt Till: Justice (Still) On Hold

There Was Violence on August 28, 1955, when a white man learned that a 14-year-old black boy allegedly made crude and sexual overtures toward his white wife.

Four nights later, the husband, his half-brother, and other accomplices searched for the young boy, found him, kidnapped, tortured then murdered him. If you’re curious, the young boy was lynched. His body was tied to the back of a car and dragged on the Mississippi road.

You can imagine what that Mississippi road did to that poor young man’s body.

That young man’s name was Emmitt Till. His accuser’s name was Carolyn Bryant. The individuals that committed this crime were Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam.

This story got a lot of national attention. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury. Later, they would both admit to murdering in a magazine interview.

Fast forward sixty-two years later. Duke University professor, historian, and author Timothy Tyson gets a phone call from Carolyn Bryant’s daughter-in-law who prompted her to reach out to Tyson after reading his previous book, “Blood Done Signed My Name” a historical memoir written by Tyson that explored the 1970 murder of Henry D. Marrow, a black man from Tyson’s home town of Oxford, North Carolina.

In what could have been her only interview since the tragic event in 1955, Carolyn Bryant in her conversation with Tyson confirmed that her original testimony that Emmett Till, “…grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.”, was an untrue account.

Instead, what allegedly happened was that while Emmitt and his friends were patronizing a store Bryant owned with her husband, he whistled at her, which she did not like, which angered her to the point where she was threatening to get a gun and go after Emmitt. At that time, the boy and his friends ran off.

In her conversation with Tyson, Carolyn would admit, “Nothing that boy did would ever justify what happened to him.”

Well, that moment of clarity came about sixty-two years too late. Even though she didn’t tell her husband Roy about the incident, some kids that were allegedly nearby would do just that, which led to the kidnap and murder of Till.

As a side note, this is what we as black people are referring to when we talk about white women weaponizing their “whiteness” to the detriment of black lives. Some unknowingly are doing it and others, like the case of Amy Cooper — a white woman in Central Park that lied to 9–1–1 dispatchers that a black man, a BIRD WATCHER was threatening the safety of her and her dog, which was off leash. This was happening while Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher was recording her telling this lie to the dispatcher from his phone.

At Emmitt’s funeral, his mother Mamie chose to have an open casket of her slain son’s disfigured body to serve as a reminder. She was quoted as saying, “I want them to see what they’ve done to my boy.”

Let us move a little later. And here’s a very interesting side note: Just a couple of months ago in June of 2022, Deborah Watts — a cousin of Emmett Till, and her daughter Teri Watts of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation initiated a search that turned up an unserved arrest warrant from 1955 charging a white woman in Till’s 1955 kidnapping. Where was this unserved warrant found? In the basement of a Mississippi Courthouse.

At a minimum, the fact that somebody in law enforcement in this Jim Crow-Era state of Mississippi in 1955 drafted this warrant charging her tells us that somebody from what I’m sure was an all-white law enforcement department KNEW she was culpable of a crime. You don’t put pen-to-paper to a legal document of that magnitude for something as serious as murder if you don’t know that a crime has been committed with supporting evidence.

Here’s where this story ties into my mission: Justice has never been served in the case of the Till Family vs. The Bryant Family. Carolyn’s husband Roy and half-brother Milam are deceased and here this woman is walking around free in the state of Kentucky while her actions have not been adjudicated.

Nazi war criminals fled Germany in the mid-1940s when the Allied Forces won World War II. Those same criminals hid in South America, Europe and even the United States. For those who have survived, they have still been hunted and brought to justice for war crimes. If my memory serves me correctly, these men were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s at the time of their late convictions.

Consider this: cold murder cases where DNA and other evidence led investigators to where serial killers and other criminals were hiding were brought to justice twenty, sometimes thirty years after the fact. See where I’m going with this?

Carolyn Bryant is an accessory to the murder of Emmitt Till. This fourteen-year-old black boy allegedly whistled at her, which at best is inappropriate and rude. But it’s a fourteen-year-old thing to do. It does not warrant a death wish. It does not warrant torture or murder. And the fact that more than sixty years have passed, does not erase that.

She got in a car with her husband whom she knew had a history of violence and abuse and pointed Till out to him. Some people may say, “Well what was she supposed to do? Lie to him?”. YEAH! Say, I don’t see him. No, that’s not him. She had to have known her husband had bad intentions. He’s allegedly violent with you, his wife — someone he supposedly loves, and you don’t think he’d be potentially deadly towards a human being he has a strong racial bias against?

I don’t know what the charges would be for this type of involvement in a murder, but whatever it is, she shouldn’t be spared from it.

What does that tell people when they can run the clock out on justice and stand behind old age and physical fragility as a tool of sympathy? The Till family’s trauma may not have run out. The gruesome nature of Emmett Till’s murder doesn’t age out.

What burns me up about this is that this is yet another case where black people are denied justice and the trauma behind atrocities extend for decades from one generation to the next.

This is yet another example where the criminal justice system of this country broadcasts to the masses that nobody cares about our lives.

I find it heartbreaking that Till’s mother, who was living with her son in Chicago before he left to visit relatives in Mississippi where she’s from, supposedly tried prepping him for that level of racism in the south. She was quoted as saying, “After all, how do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only known love?”.

Hold Carolyn Bryant accountable.

Imani Kaliid is a Los Angeles native, host of “Survivor Stories: From Pain to Power” (Roku TV, Amazon Fire), author of “There Was Violence” and advocate of victims of violent trauma. Follow him on Twitter: @SurvivorImaniK

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Author of “There Was Violence”, Host of “Survivor Stories: From Pain to Power”, survivor and advocate for victims of violent trauma.

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Imani Kaliid

Author of “There Was Violence”, Host of “Survivor Stories: From Pain to Power”, survivor and advocate for victims of violent trauma.