Carolyn Bryant Donham has finally ended her silence about the Emmett Till murder in 1955, and that’s reason enough for “The Blood of Emmett Till,” the new book about the case from Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson.
But there’s a problem: The former Money, Miss., grocery store keeper who was dubbed a crossroads Marilyn Monroe hasn’t completely come clean, if Tyson’s book is any indication.
It also turns out that she has written a memoir, “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” but it will not be available to scholars until 2038, at her request. It’s being housed, along with Tyson’s notes about his interview with her for the new book, at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
As many people know, Donham was known in 1955 as Carolyn Bryant, the wife of Roy Bryant, who grew up in a clan of bootleggers and grocery store owners whose main shoppers were the poor black sharecroppers of the Delta. One summer afternoon, when Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam were on a trip, the 14-year-old Till entered the store and reportedly made ugly remarks and grabbed Carolyn Bryant by the waist, saying he’d been with white women before. Till, who lived in Chicago, was visiting relatives near Money that summer.
The affront was deemed serious enough that Roy Bryant and Milam kidnapped Till from his relatives’ home, then beat him up and took him to a barn on property managed by one of Milam’s brothers. There, they and others apparently tortured Till, then shot him in the head, tied a gin fan around his neck and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River.
When the body was found by a fisherman and returned to his mother in Chicago, she was horrified at what she saw – and decided to hold an open-casket funeral and allow photographs of her son. Those photos — and the brutality that they exposed — caused an international uproar.
But Mississippi was outraged by the uproar, and even more irritated that the state was being criticized for its way of life. An all-white, all-male jury acquitted Bryant and Milam. Then the two agreed to talk to journalist William Bradford Huie, who paid the men for their story. They described Till’s killing in detail. But they left out the part about others being involved in the torture.
Ever since the trial, Donham has refused to give interviews or talk about her lurid testimony. In the new book, she tells Tyson that she made some of it up — in particular the grabbing of the waist.
“I want to tell you” what happened that day at the store, Donham tells Tyson in the opening chapter. “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 (the grabbing of the waist) is not true.”
She goes on to say, however: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
Donham also tells Tyson that neither her former husband nor Milam fired the fatal shot into Till’s head. Instead, she says that Roy Bryant’s brother, Raymond, told her that the shot was fired by Melvin Campbell, who was J.W. Milam’s brother-in-law and apparently at the barn that night. All of those mentioned by Donham are dead.
Tyson does an admirable job of condensing and updating information about the case, using a 2006 FBI report on Till’s murder to weave together a historical tapestry. But Tyson doesn’t press Donham on her role in the events surrounding the death. Interestingly, Tyson also does not discuss the doubts that FBI agents had about Donham’s truthfulness when they interviewed her about Till back in the early 2000s.
The definitive book about the case is “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” by Devery S. Anderson. And Anderson believes that Milam fired the fatal shot, despite Donham’s account.
But Anderson says we’ll never know for sure. And the shooter isn’t the only one who was guilty. Everyone who was in the barn that night participated in the killing in one way or another. And the jury that freed Bryant and Milam has to share some of the blame. So does America.
Sadly, the events of 1955 still seem to be haunting the nation today.
‘The Blood of Emmett Till’
Timothy B. Tyson
Simon & Schuster, $27