Emmett Till would have been 81 today. Why has there been no justice?
Emmett Till would’ve been 81 this year, but he was murdered for being Black in Mississippi on August 28, 67 years ago.
Many now frame Till’s death as “historic” – as the catalyst that propelled the civil rights movement forward. In human terms, however, Till’s kidnapping and torture may as well have happened yesterday. Conditions that evoked Till’s murder are still with us.
And by conditions, I don’t mean just systemic racism.
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I’m talking about Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose words incited white supremacist vigilantes to kidnap and lynch 14-year-old Till. Over the years, both on and off the record, Donham has at various times admitted culpability and then, at others, denied it.
Unlike Till, Donham is alive. She was recently pictured for the first time in decades in Kentucky. She now knows that she’ll never have to set foot in a courtroom to answer for her role in Till’s lynching.
That’s because Leflore County, which issued an arrest warrant for Donham in 1955, a warrant that was never executed, decided last month that no charges will be filed against her.
Donham wasn’t arrested then. She won’t be arrested now. A grand jury found no evidence for manslaughter or kidnapping charges.
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It would be interesting to know which witnesses and witness testimony were presented to the Mississippi grand jury.
Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and half-brother, JW Milam, were acquitted by a Leflore County court on kidnapping charges in 1955 after having been cleared by an all-white jury of Till’s murder just weeks earlier in neighboring Tallahatchie County.
As well as claiming that Till made advances, it’s believed that Donham identified Emmett Till to his killers at the point of his kidnapping.
The entire saga, from the brutal lynching to the recent pictures of Donham alive, well and at large, a saga stretched out over seven decades, serves as a stark reminder of how little value is afforded to Black lives and how whiteness, meanwhile, is protected at all costs.
Till was a victim of an anti-Black war that persists to this day and was the victim of white supremacist homegrown terror, plain and simple.
I suspect the reason Donham has avoided prosecution has less to do with evidence – after all, there was an arrest warrant issued for her in 1955 – and more to do with having to face the uncomfortable spectacle of an elderly white woman being quizzed by prosecutors about her role in a lynching and the repercussions that would entail.
For respectable white people, it’s probably more comforting to relegate Till to the history books and Black history month than it is to hold up a mirror to a woman who resembles their grandma.
This is a favor to white America. No one wants to poke the hornet’s nest undisturbed for many decades. The long arm of the law is shorter for white Americans than it is for Black kids languishing in jail for a couple of ounces of weed. We all know this.
The pursuit of justice, though, is possible with political will. Justice has the potential to be more than a set of unrealized ideals.
Irmgard Furchner is 97, a decade older than Donham. She’s accused of complicity in thousands of deaths that occurred at an SS camp during WW2. She was an administrator at the Stuttof concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. She’s currently on trial.
She claims she knew nothing of the horrors at the camp that she worked at as a teen. Despite protesting her innocence, Furchner tried to flee last year. She’d jumped into a taxi and headed to a train station. But she was apprehended. Good, because that’s how justice works. There’s been no humanizing of Furchner in the press.
“Nazi-hunters,” as they are known, pull no punches in their commitment to bringing justice to thousands of Jews and others murdered by German white supremacists and their collaborators.
White supremacy produced one of the worst horrors in human history in the form of the Shoah. Perpetrators of that crime should face the consequences if they are physically able. If Furchner is found guilty she should – and must – pay the price.
I’d argue that those complicit in the Black holocaust, a crime spanning hundreds of years between several continents from slavery to Jim Crow, should be treated in the same manner as Furchner.
American white supremacy and German white supremacy go hand in hand. In fact, Hitler was reportedly inspired by structural racism already fine-tuned in America, well before the rise of the Third Reich.
Donham is able to stand trial. Nazis being pushed into courtrooms in wheelchairs, hooked up to dialysis machines and duly sentenced stands in contrast to the image of Donham standing in her own garden of her own home being attended to by a doting son.
A lack of “new evidence” is apparently the reason she won’t face the music. Try telling Emmett Till’s family, however, or the average Black American, that a Mississippi grand jury found no evidence to indict.
In an ideal world, what’s good for German Nazis and their enablers should be good for Americans who are guilty of complicity in white supremacist murder. We claim our disdain for terrorism is universal. We claim that justice is equally applicable to everyone.
The reality is that most people will view the likes of Donham, and brazen vigilantes like Payton Gendron as entirely different entities to Irmgard Furchner. Are they really that different though?
I’m sure many Americans, indifferent to the fact that Donham will never stand trial, would cheer the punishment of Nazi collaborators.
America has had no problem sending Nazi war criminals back to Europe for prosecution. The same vigor and commitment to justice and civil rights, however, must be applied at home.
READ MORE: A white librettist wrote an opera about Emmett Till – and some critics are calling for its cancellation
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