She Lied: Emmett Till's Accuser Admits She Made Up Story
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting relatives in Tallahatchie County, was kidnapped under cover of night, mercilessly beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for the crime of being black and bold enough to flirt with a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. The murder has long been painful evidence that black lives do not matter in this country, that they can be snuffed out for any perceived slight against whiteness.
Duke University historian and author Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till revisits the case the Department of Justice in 2004 described as a “brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice.” More than six decades after the crime, the book reveals the white woman at the center of the story admitted she made up much of the story.
Emmett Till, before and after.
The narrative of Till’s murder has always implied his uppity northern negroness and refusal to know his place in the Deep South contributed to his murder. It is a transparent attempt to shift blame to the victim of an unjustifiable crime, and it turns out even that lame charge is a lie. J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant murdered Till over accusations that he had whistled at, and put his hands on Roy’s wife Carolyn, who was working in the couple’s grocery when Till came in to buy candy.
Carolyn would recount the fabricated tale in court during Bryant and Milam’s murder trial before an all-white Mississippi jury. As Sheila Weller writes at Vanity Fair:
“The most explosive testimony, which certainly influenced the local white public’s perception of the motive for the murder, were the incendiary words of Carolyn Bryant, who was working in the store that night. On the stand, she had asserted that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the 'unprintable' word he had used (as one of the defense lawyers put it), 'he said [he had]'—done something – 'with white women before.' Then she added, 'I was just scared to death.'"
Carolyn's account also held that Till whistled at her, but as Weller notes, "He may not have whistled; he was said to have a lisp."
The jurors in Till’s case had no intention of convicting two white men for the murder of a black child. But Carolyn’s story helped smear Till’s character and memory. She mostly disappeared from the public eye after the trial, resurfacing a little over a decade ago, when she reached out to Tyson about his book. As the interviews proceeded, she eventually admitted that most of the damning testimony she gave was a complete fabrication.
“[I]n 2007, at age 72…[Carolyn] confessed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. 'That part’s not true,' she told Tyson, about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her. As for the rest of what happened that evening in the country store, she said she couldn’t remember. (Carolyn is now 82, and her current whereabouts have been kept secret by her family.)...Carolyn became reflective in Timothy Tyson’s presence, wistfully volunteering, 'Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.' She also admitted she 'felt tender sorrow,' Tyson would note, 'for Mamie Till-Mobley'—Emmett Till’s mother, who died in 2003 after a lifetime spent crusading for civil rights. (She had bravely insisted that her son’s casket remain open at his funeral in order to show America what had been done to him.) 'When Carolyn herself [later] lost one of her sons, she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved all the more.' Tyson does not say whether Carolyn was expressing guilt. Indeed, he asserts that for days after the murders, and until the trial, she was kept in seclusion by her husband’s family. But that 'tender sorrow' does sound, in its way, like late-blooming regret."
Had he lived, Emmett Till would be 75 today. No one, including Carolyn Bryant, has ever been punished for his savage beating and murder. His death sits on a timeline amongst Birth of a Nation, more than 3,400 black lynchings, and the killings of nine black churchgoers by Dylann Roof, all motivated by America’s belief that black life is a threat to the sanctity of white womanhood. It cannot be said enough that the (violent and racist) lies white America tells itself cost actual black lives. Among them was Emmett Till's, on a list that continues to grow.