For perspective, my mother was five years old when fourteen-year-old Emmett Till accused of what amounts to sexual assault by a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham in Money, Mississippi. He was murdered by J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the brother-in-law and brother of his accuser, herself a twenty-one-year-old mother at the time.
After he was pistol-whipped, a seventy-five-pound gin fan was attached to him with barbed wire, and his body was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge, into the river of the same name. This is the same bridge I have ridden over as a child going to visit my southern kin in Mound Bayou, Mississippi–less than two hours from this spot.
From the knowledge of his murder, the acquittal of the perpetrators, and now sixty-two years later, it’s fitting the truth of what happened between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant Donham should be revealed in a book. Dr. Timothy Tyson published The Blood Of Emmett Till last January after the daughter of Carolyn Bryant Donham reached out to Dr. Tyson.
In three hundred and five pages, Dr. Tyson allows this woman to relay the events of the day that changed the course of American history, added to the myth of the protected status of white women, and ended a fourteen-year-old young man’s life. With this written confession penned by Dr. Tyson, Carolyn Bryant Donham (whom now prefers to be addressed as Carolyn Donham), said something which should not be glazed over, ignored or ever taken lightly.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
-Carolyn Bryant Donham, The Blood Of Emmett Till
In her admission, I find no solace. Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted she made up the whole accosting incident. Most of the people of my mother’s age and generation knew she was lying. In this and of this situation, one cannot help but see the long shadow cast. This lie about the brutish, uncontrollable nature of African-American men, has metamorphosed into this fear of blackness and black people was birthed in 1915 with Birth Of A Nation. From this film, this fear has become its more actualized form now a solid century later. This fear is realized in the need to weaponize law enforcement to contain, retain and oppress all matter of blackness or aberration to the comfort of whiteness.
This month, the United States Department of Justice headed by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, who sees Latinx immigrants as a national crisis and those declaring Black Lives Matter as ‘black identity extremists’, is reopening the case of a fourteen-year-old black child murdered by two white men in 1956. The reason given was ‘new information’ about the case. I am puzzled as what this ‘new information’ could be. I am of the opinion of Dr. Tyson: the only ‘new information’ is her confession.
However, there is a mirror of truth which can be held up in this situation. In this mirror, we see how fear and white privilege collide to produce the rich soil of suspicious racism. From that soil, we get the strange fruit of the young and black. Carolyn Donham knew what would happen if she told her husband and brother-in-law ‘what happened to her.’ The man that called on John Crawford in the Wal-Mart in Ohio knew what would happen if he called the police. The police officers whom shot and killed Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Jr. and Tamir Rice (whom as two years younger than Emmett), knew what would happen if law enforcement were to get involved in situations where fear and white privilege align. The female security officer knew what could happen if she called the police on a young black man at the zoo in Philadelphia; when asked by a co-worker why she called the police, she began crying, saying ‘she just wanted him to go away.’
Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.
There is no reason to be excited that this case is ‘reopening’. Nothing happened almost seventy years ago, and nothing is going to happen now. Carolyn Bryant Donham is complicit in the murder of Emmett Till. The African-American community has known this for half a century. We have known it to the point it has become a spread gospel, with her lie and image cast as the archetype of the dangerous white woman to never anger and avoid. She does not get to come close to death and ask for release at the hands of the Department of Justice, which is what she is silently seeking. There is no statute of limitations on murder, however, with both murderers dead and their confession recorded in LOOK magazine not even three years later, unbothered about what they did, what hope is there?
This is the same oops-logic we see with white people who call the police on black people for being a live in a space where white people feel entitled and fearful. When something unforeseen (like murder) happens, the privileged party who initiated the encounter says they had ‘no idea’ what would happen, and ‘they just should have complied’.
In the era of #AllLivesMatter, I remain a hardened skeptic. This woman has lived sixty years and more past this incident. She had lived out her days with relative peace, her children, grandchildren and secure white privilege. Carolyn knew everything that was done to Emmett. As far as her life. for which there still is no motivation, and she still said nothing which could have prevented his murder. In reopening this case, it can only be speculated the goal in reopening this case is to make the masses who shout relentlessly for justice to remain silent.
In that silence of her legal and technical absolution, we should then be happy to be called both black and American–folded neatly into the batter of ‘what makes this country great’. We would cease to want equality, accountabily for those who are charged to protect and serve. We would, at last, be comforted at the teat of the ideal of justice, the illusion that all lives matter, without ever pointing out there was a time the life of someone non-white once had a price tag and sale location.
Emmett Till still matters because this nation keeps killing him and his kin, with the same response when asked why –with the same absolution given to his murderers.