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Story of Emmett Till continues six decades later

by Jaymi Gooden - Campus Talk Editor
Wed, Feb 8th 2017 03:20 pm
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons
Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

 Carolyn Bryant Donham — you've got some serious expalining to do. A lot of people hate you, but as the late Reverend King once said, "Hate is too heavy a burden to bear." In these times, this is true more than ever. However, I wish these wise words rang as true in 1955 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally beaten, shot, tied up in barbed wire to a cotton gin and thrown into the Tallahatchie River in Jim Crow Mississippi for "whistling at a white woman."

We've all heard the tale in eighth grade social studies of the young black boy who allegedly verbally insulted and sexually assaulted a white woman and "paid the price" at the hands of her husband and brother-in-law. We've seen the pictures of his mutilated body, barely recognizable in an open casket insisted by his mother so the world could see what his killers did to him.

If you haven't heard the story then read closely;  if you have heard it then pay even more attention because according to Carolyn Bryant Donham — the woman who accused Till of insult and injury in 1955 — none of it was true.

In a recent New York Times article, "Woman Linked to 1955 Emmett Till Murder Tells Historian Her Claims Were False," by  Richard Perez-Pena, Donham spoke to Duke University professor and author of, "The Blood of Emmett Till," Timothy B. Tyson.

In Tyson's book, which was published on January 31, 2017, Donham admits that the part of her trial testimony where she claims that Till was menacing and made sexual advances towards her was a lie.

"That part is not true," Donham stated in her interview with Tyson.

With this new confession, some, like Senior Justice Writer for the Daily News Shaun King, want to see Donham punished for Till's death.

"62 years after claiming Emmett Till whistled at her, woman now admits she made it all up," King posted on Twitter. "She should be prosecuted."

The two white men involved were arrested decades ago but were acquitted by an all white, male jury. Any others presumed to be involved died long ago with the exception of Dunham who went into hiding after Till's death and is breaking her silence for the first time in more than six decades.

"I was hoping that one day she would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction," said Wheeler Parker, 77, a cousin of Till's who lives near Chicago. "It's important that people understand 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."

Indeed it does. The lynching of Emmett Till was just one in a series of racially motivated murders that sparked the Civil Rights movement. However, if one thing could be said for all of those murders, it was said by Donham's daughter-in-law who had read another book of Tyson's and decided to reach out.

"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," Ms. Donham's daughter-in-law said.

She is absolutely right.

According to the aforementioned article, Ms. Donham told him that soon after the killing, her husband's family hid her away, moving her from place to place for days, to keep her from talking to law enforcement. Shesaid that her husband, Roy Bryant, whom she later divorced, was physically abusive to her.

I weep for Emmett Till. He, like so many others who lived under Jim Crow fell victim to its cruelty and harshness established under the notion that the color of a person's skin determines their worth. What happened in that store is unclear, but it has usually been portrayed as an example of a black boy unwittingly defying the strict racial rules of the South. Witnesses said that Till did wolf-whistle at Donham, but even that has been called into doubt.

I also weep for Carolyn.

"The circumstances under which she told the story were coercive," Dr. Tyson said. "She's horrified by it. There's clearly a great burden of guilt and sorrow."

From what I know of times back then and from what I can see in times today, there should be a great burden of guilt in us all. We should feel a sting of sorrow when the paths of what is right and what is easy come to cross, and we as individuals and as a society, choose the latter.

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