By Bill Rose
When I saw headlines announcing the death of Caroline Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Emmett Till case, my immediate thought was “Now we’ll never know.”
Almost 68 years have passed since the bloated and battered body of 14-year-old Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, enraging black Americans. A graphic Jet magazine photo of Till’s horribly disfigured body helped spark the civil rights movement and, eventually, the sure death of segregation.
It never should have happened. Till was just a boisterous, boastful kid from Chicago visiting family near Money.
After John Milam and Roy Bryant were hauled into a courtroom to answer to the charge of murdering Till, Donham testified that Till came into the Bryant family store, put his arm around her, and made sexually suggestive comments. She said he also whistled at her as she walked from the store.
If you were a black person and valued your life, you didn’t do that in the Mississippi of 1955. But this was a child, down from Chicago and not quite savvy enough to the daily dangers of black life in the South.
An all-white jury (the only kind in Mississippi those days) deliberated for an hour – time mostly spent sipping a soft drink and indulging in friendly chitchat — then acquitted the two white men. Milam and Bryant later admitted the murder in a paid-for interview with LOOK magazine.
Decades later, a book by Duke University historian Timothy Tyson claimed that in an interview, the elderly Donham recanted her testimony. Donham’s daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant, present at the interview, denied Donham had recanted.
It turned out that the recantation could not be found on Tyson’s tape recording of the interview. He said it came as he was setting up the tape recorder and he quickly stopped and scribbled notes, which he produced.
On and on and on in sickening repetition, the case that never seemed to die continued to fester as a raw wound for the Till family and the black community at large. A series of attempts to prosecute others involved in the crime periodically led to nothing.
Justice, it seemed, was destined to always be denied.
But the crime was so vicious, (Till’s skull was cracked open, his face was bashed in, a bullet was fired into his brain, he was thrown in the river with a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire), so callous that it came to symbolize the worst of what the white South was willing to resort to in the interest of preserving segregation.
It was no accident that Klan activity in Mississippi and the rest of the South escalated immediately thereafter. Hardly a year passed in the late 1950s and early 1960s without the Klan killing black Mississippians.
Rose Parks, a movement icon arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of a Birmingham bus, said thoughts of Till helped her endure her run-in with heavy handed white supremacy.
Over the years countless other civil rights leaders used Till’s name as a battle cry. The name stubbornly made its way back to front pages across America, popping up when you least expected it. Martyrs have a way of doing that.
* * *
I was nine years old when two boys playing hooky from school in Tallahatchie County fished Till’s body from the river.
Even at that age, I was an avid reader of newspapers, so when I glanced at the Memphis Press-Scimitar on the cigar counter in my father’s drugstore in Shelby, an hour away from Money, the story caught my eye. How could it not? It had all the trappings of outrage.
I remember asking my daddy how someone could do such a thing. He said something about how Till supposedly whistled at a white woman.
“They killed her for that?” I asked.
Daddy took me aside and quietly mumbled something about how I shouldn’t worry because murder was a sin and God would punish them for what they did.
Only later did I realize that my father was really saying they would never be convicted by an all-white jury so the only hope for justice would come from God.
Not yet old enough to fully realize the power of raw racism, I still couldn’t fathom how someone could do that to anybody over a whistle.
I still can’t.
It got worse. As I walked out of the drugstore, I overheard a local farmer muttering that Till “got what was coming to him.”
It must have been the first time I had come to grips with race and its implications. It wasn’t the last.
In high school, a friend’s mother drove a group of us to Cleveland for a Boy Scout Jamboree and I witnessed what I thought was a tragic sight. A small, thin, elderly black woman struggling under the weight of two bags of groceries was trying to cross the street but kept being driven back by traffic.
“Boy,” I said, “look at that poor black lady trying to cross the street with all that stuff.”
The woman driving the car gave me a withering glance and said, “Bill Rose, you know better than that. It’s a black woman. There are no black ladies.”
A small thing compared to the Till atrocity, but it bothered me. I instinctively understood that it was symptomatic of all the little indignities that went with segregation, indignities that amounted to a straitjacket for black people, a sort of daily smothering that, in the words of segregationists, kept them “in their place.”
That sort of stuff led white Mississippians to think of blacks as somehow less human than the rest of us. And that sort of thinking gave us Emmett Till. To his killers, Till crossed a red line when he allegedly dared to make suggestions of a sexual nature to a white woman. To the Milams and Bryants of the South, interracial sex was unthinkable, a mortal sin, one that cried out for the taking of a life. Even the life of a 14-year-old boy.
Years later, I would wind up covering the South for The Miami Herald, traveling from one race war to another and still hearing the name of Emmett Till, often invoked by the soldiers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they marched through Dixie. The racial climate slowly got better, but not without constant struggle. Old habits die hard in Dixie.
Much later, after I had retired and settled in Oxford in the early stages of a new century, I found myself teaching college journalists at Ole Miss, where race reared its ugly head again and again. It almost seemed as if the university, sometimes unfairly, was cursed to forever grapple with race, like an old wound that refused to heal.
All that time, the Till story kept popping up. Till’s family crying for justice. The FBI and a local prosecutor opening and closing investigations. A grand jury refusing to indict Donham. Till’s body exhumed, examined anew, placed in a new coffin, and buried again, all for naught. Later, the old coffin was found neglected and falling apart in a shed in a Chicago cemetery. In the Greenwood courthouse, an old warrant from 1955 was found for the arrest of Donham. It had never been executed. The Till family lobbied for an arrest. It never happened. The trail had grown too cold.
And now, 68 years after I first saw that headline in the Memphis paper, another headline tells me Donham is dead. With her goes the last hope of the Till family for justice.
Did Donham identify Till to her husband Roy? Did she really tell the truth when she testified that Till made sexually suggestive comments and put his arms around her waist? Or, as she claimed near the end, did she play the encounter down and urge her husband not to hurt Till? We will always wonder.
Donham may be gone, but rest assured that a crime that heinous will continue to be studied, investigated, and discussed for long into the future.
Much as I’d like to forget it, the case that has stuck with me since I saw that first headline will probably stick with me to the grave.
For Donham, of course, the case never died. She went to her grave knowing some people would always hold her responsible for what happened.How terrible it must have been to carry that burden through such a long life