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Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in 1955 after Carolyn Bryant claimed Emmett Till sexually harassed her at the store. But 60 years later, Carolyn admitted to lying about the incident.

Emmett Till with his mother, Mamie Till Mobley
Emmett Till is seen with his mother, Mamie Till Mobley

A few days later, Carolyn’s husband and her brother made Emmett carry a 75-pound cotton gin fan to the bank and ordered him to take off his clothes, then they beat him nearly to death, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and then threw his body, tied to 75-pound cotton gin fan with a barbed with barbed wire, into a river. 

Emmett Till’s murder devastated the African American community, sparking mass outcry from civil rights activists.  


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Who Is Emmett Till? 

Emmett Louis Till was born in 1941 in Chicago and grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South side of Chicago. Emmett’s mother raised him with her mother, as his parents, Louis and Mamie separated a year after the birth of Emmett.

Emmett Till

Louis abused Mamie and once choked her to unconsciousness, to which she responded by throwing scalding water at him. Louis was forced by the judge to choose between jail or enlisting in the US Army after he violated court orders of staying away from Mamie. In 1954 a few weeks before his son’s fourth birthday, he was executed for the rape and murder of an Italian woman.

Emmett contracted polio at the age of six that left him with a persistent stutter. Shortly after Emmet and Mamie moved to Detroit, Mamie married Pink Bradley in 1951. But Emmett preferred living in Chicago, so he moved back to live with his grandmother, his mother, and his stepfather also joined them later that year.


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Carolyn Bryant Donham

Before she claimed that Emmett offended her, Carolyn Bryant Donham was born in 1934, the daughter of a plantation manager and a nurse in Mississippi.

Carolyn Bryant with her children
Carolyn Bryant accused 14 year old Emmett Till of sexually harassing her.

She dropped out of school and won some beauty contests before marrying Roy Bryant, who was an ex-soldier. The couple owned a store together named Bryant’s Grocery and Meat market in Money, Mississippi.

On August 21, 1955, Emmet and his cousins were standing outside a country store in Money. Emmett bragged that his girlfriend back home was white. None of his cousins believed him and dared him to ask the white woman sitting behind the store counter for a date.

The woman behind the counter was Carolyn Bryant, who was alone at the time in the store so, no one knows what exactly happened in the store. Emmett went in, brought some candy, and was heard saying, “Bye baby,” when he came out of the store.

There was no one else except Carolyn and Emmett in the store, the lady behind the county – Carolyn Bryant claimed that Emmett grabbed her, made lewd advances, and wolf-whistled at her as he went out. 


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The Lynching Of Emmett Till

After Roy Bryant, store’s owner and Carolyn Bryant’s husband, returned from a business trip, Carolyn old him about what happened at the store. He aggressively questioned several young black men who entered the store. 

The site from where Emmett Till was kidnapped
The site from where Emmett Till was kidnapped

After Roy learned that the boy was from Chicago and was living with his uncle, Mose Wright, he went to his home with his half brother J.W. Milam on August 28. Several witnesses overheard Roy and his half brother discussing taking Emmett from his house. 

In the early morning of August 28 – between 2:00 – 3:00 am, Roy and Milam, drove to Wright’s house and asked Wright to take them to Emmett. His great aunt even offered the men money, but they refused and threatened Mose Wright that he wouldn’t live to see 65 after they asked him how old he is? 


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They took Emmet to the car and tied him up in the back of the pickup truck and drove toward Money, Mississippi. 

In an interview with William Bradford Huie, Roy and Milam said that initially, they intended to beat Emmet and throw him off an embankment into the river to frighten him. But they said that when they were beating him, he called them bastards and said that he had sexual encounters with white women. 

They put him in the back of their truck and drove to a cotton gin to take a cotton gin fan weighing 70 pounds, and drove several hours looking for a place to throw Emmett. They shot him by the river and weighted his body by the fan. 

Three days after Emmett’s abduction and murder, two boys who were fishing in the Tallahatchie river found his body. Emmett’s body was swollen and so disfigured that his uncle Mose Wright could only identify it by a silver ring with the initials “L.T.” and “May 25, 1943”. Authorities hurried to bury the body, but Emmett’s mother requested to send it back to Chicago. 


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Open Casket Funeral Of Emmet Till 

Although racially motivated murders and lynching occurred at the time for decades, Emmett’s murder drew national attention – the case of a 14-year-old boy who had allegedly killed for breaching a social caste system.  

Emmett's mother Maime Till
Emmett’s mother Maime Till

After seeing the remains of Emmett, his mother decided to go with an open-casket funeral so that the whole world could see what racist murderers had done to her only son. An African American weekly magazine, Het published a photo of Emmett’s corpse, and soon it was all over the mainstream media. 

In addition to racism and horrific lynching, Mamie’s decision of open-casket exposed the world to the limitation and vulnerabilities of American democracy. Thousands attended his funeral or viewed his open casket. 

Photograph of Emmett’s mutilated corpse circulated across the country after appearing in the Jet Magazine, and The Chicago Defender, generated intense public reactions. The time selected one of the photographs showing Mamie over her dead son as one of the “100 most influential images of all time.”

Less than a month after the lynching of Emmett Till, the all-white jury took less than an hour before issuing of “not guilty,” stating that the state has failed to prove the identity of the body. Roy and Milam admitted to killing Emmett in an interview in 1956. 

Carolyn Bryant was allowed to testify but not in front of the jury, as the prosecution objected that her testimony was irrelevant to Emmett’s abduction and murder. She testified that Emmett had grabbed her hand, she pulled away, and he followed her behind the counter, clasped her waist, and used vulgar language.


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Carolyn Bryant’s lie 

In 2017 author Timothy Tysol revealed details of a 2008 interview, he claimed in which Carolyn Bryant admitted to him that her 1955 accusation against Emmett Till was false. 

Carolyn Bryant after the trial
After the trial, Carolyn Bryant (far left) hid herself from public scrutiny.

Tyson said that during that interview, Bryant retracted her statement that Emmett grabbed her around her waist and uttered obscenities and saying “that part’s not true.” 

In The Blood of Emmett Till, Timothy Tyson described Bryant remembering the event as: 

“In her memoir, she recounts the story she told at the trial using imagery from the classic Southern racist horror movie of the ‘Black Beast’ rapist. But above her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me ‘That part’s not true.'”


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Tyson also wrote that Emmett’s accuser also admitted that she felt “tender sorrow” for the little boy’s mother, who devoted her life to the civil rights movement before her death in 2003. “When Carolyn herself lost one of her sons, she thought about the grief that Mamie must have felt and grieved al the more,” Tyson said.

In the 2008 interview, Carolyn Bryant said that she doesn’t remember much of what happened in the grocery store. She also said that “nothing the boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

Carolyn Bryant notes by Tyson
Carolyn Bryant notes by Tyson

However, Tyson was unable to record the recanting statement by Carolyn. He said, “It is true that part is not on tape because I was setting up the tape recorder.” To support his claim, Tyson provided a handwritten note that he said had been made at the time. 

After Tyson’s claim, The New York Times quotes Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s who said: “I was hoping that one day she(Bryant) would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction. It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.”

Carolyn’s Bryant’s daughter in law Marsha Bryant, who was present at both the interviews, said her mother-in-law “never recanted.” 

Carolyn Bryant Donham, now 82 cannot be reached to comment on the claim.


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How Emmett’s case influenced Civil Rights? 

Emmett’s case drew attention worldwide because of the brutality of the lynching, the victim’s age, and acquittal of two men who later admitted killing him. By the end of 1955, 14 Mississippi counties had no registered black voters. 

Bryant's Grocery sign

Rosa Parks attended a rally for Emmett till led by Martin Luther King, and later she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. It sparked a year-long well-organized grassroots boycott of the public bus system. “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back.”


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Carolyn Bryant Donham said in the interview that soon after the killing of Emmett Till, her husband’s hid her away, to keep her away from law enforcement, so that she don’t talk to them.

She told that her husband Roy Bryant, whom she later divorce, was physically abusive to her.

This isn’t the only case when a boy had been killed, 14-year-old George Stinney was also sentenced to death but was found not guilty 70 years after his death.

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