Uncovering the Truth About the Disgraceful Murder of Emmett Till
The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (Simon & Schuster, January 2017):
“I have thought and thought about everything about Emmett Till, the killing and the trial, telling who did what to who,” Carolyn Bryant, almost 80, said. She served me a slice of pound cake, hesitated a little, and then murmured, “They’re all dead now anyway.”
For one epic moment half a century earlier, Carolyn Bryant’s face had been familiar across the globe, forever attached to a crime of historic notoriety and symbolic power. The murder of Emmett Till was reported in one of the very first banner headlines of the civil rights era and launched the national coalition that fueled the modern civil rights movement. But she had never opened her door to a journalist or historian, let alone invited one for cake and coffee. Now she looked me in the eyes, trying hard to distinguish between fact and remembrance, and told me a story that I did not know.
The story I thought I knew began in 1955, when Carolyn Bryant was 21 and a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago walked into the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in a rural Mississippi Delta hamlet and offended her. Perhaps on a dare, the boy touched or even squeezed her hand when he exchanged money for candy, asked her for a date, and said goodbye when he left the store. Few news writers who told the story of the black boy and the backwoods beauty failed to mention the “wolf whistle” that came next: when an angry Carolyn walked out to a car to retrieve the pistol under the seat, Till supposedly whistled at her.
The world knew this story only because of what happened a few days later: Carolyn’s kinsmen, allegedly just her husband and brother-in-law, kidnapped and killed the boy and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. That was supposed to be the end of it. Lesson taught. But a young fisherman found Till’s corpse in the water, and a month later the world watched Roy Bryant and J.W. “Big” Milam stand trial for his murder.
Carolyn Bryant handed me a copy of the trial transcript and the manuscript of her unpublished memoir. But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, “That part’s not true.”
If that part was not true, I asked, what did happen that evening decades earlier?
“I want to tell you,” she said. “Honestly, I just don’t remember. It was 50 years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.”
What does it mean when you remember something that you know never happened? She had pondered that question for many years, but never aloud in public or in an interview. When she finally told me the story of her life and starkly different and larger tales of Emmett Till’s death, it was the first time in half a century that she had uttered his name outside her family.
Not long afterward I had lunch in Jackson, Mississippi, with Jerry Mitchell, the brilliant journalist at the Clarion-Ledger whose sleuthing has solved several cold case civil rights–era murders. A few days after our lunch a manila envelope with a Mississippi return address brought hard proof that “that part,” as Carolyn had called the alleged assault, had never been true.
Mitchell had sent me copies of the handwritten notes of what Carolyn Bryant told her attorney on the day after Roy and J.W. were arrested in 1955. In this earliest recorded version of events, she charged only that Till had “insulted” her, not grabbed her, and certainly not attempted to rape her. The documents prove that there was a time when she did seem to know what had happened, and a time soon afterward when she became the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie.
Now, half a century later, she offered up another truth, an unyielding truth about which her tragic counterpart, Mamie Till-Mobley, was also adamant: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
This has been an adapted excerpt from The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson. Copyright © 2017 by Timothy B. Tyson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.