Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant
Left: An undated photo of Emmett Louis Till, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in the Mississippi Delta in August 1955 after witnesses claimed he whistled at a White woman working in a store. Right: A 1955 file photo of Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman who accused Till of making improper advances before he was lynched. She died on April 25, 2023. Image Credit: AP

This is an obituary of sorts, a notice about the death last week of an 88-year-old White woman whose accusations of sexual harassment against a 14-year-old Black American boy led to one of the most notorious crimes in modern American history, one that shocked both America and the world at large.

You will forgive those many, many Americans to whom the name of the woman, Carolyn Bryant, did not ring a bell when news of her death broke last week, for it was the crime that she had caused to happen and not her name that ended up acquiring permanent habitat in the long, tortured annals of race relations in the United States of America.

Emmett Till
A statue of Emmett Till is unveiled on October 21, 2022. Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman who accused Till of flirting with her in 1955, leading to the shocking lynching of the Black teenager that helped inspire the sweeping US civil rights movement, died on April 25, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

What Carolyn Bryant caused to happen happened close to seven decades ago, which is when the 14-year-old Black boy, Emmett Till, comes into the picture.

Emmett, who was born and raised in Chicago, travelled to Mississippi in the summer of 1955 to visit several members of his mother’s family, who lived in a small town in the Mississippi Delta called Money, where they worked as sharecroppers.

What’s Emmett Till’s crime?

Soon after his arrival there, Emmett and several of his cousins drove two miles into town to buy candy at Bryant Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett bought some chewing gum and walked outside to stand by the door. Minutes later, Carolyn Bryant, who was then 21 years old, was entering the store, which was owned by her family. That’s when Emmett — the kid from the North who was clearly unfamiliar not only with the rules of racial deference to Whites expected of Blacks in that part of the country but of the no-no manners of social exchange between Black men and White women — let out a playful wolf’s whistle.

His cousins were horrified, for the boy had not only failed to lower his head when a White woman passed by him but he actually appeared, by his mere whistle, to be actually flirting — flirting, for crying out loud — with her.

Carolyn Bryant
From left: J.W. Milam, his wife, Carolyn Bryant and her husband Roy Bryant in a courtroom in Sumner, Mississippi on September 23, 1955. Carolyn Bryant, who accused Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in 1955, died on April 25, 2023. She was 88. Image Credit: AP

Four days later, in the middle of the night, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Donham, and his half-brother, J.W.Milam, abducted Emmett from his home, beat, tortured and lynched him and then threw his body in a nearby river, letting it float downstream.

The two men were subsequently arrested and brought to trial — before a an-all white, all-male jury, where no juror who underwent voir dire, the preliminary examination of jury members by a judge or counsel to determine their fitness to serve on the panel, claimed not to be a White supremacist who considered Black folks to be a lower species of men.

Trial and acquittal

During the trial, Ms Bryant testified under oath that the victim had sexually harassed her, grabbed her and even “touched” her, all the while expressing reluctance, being the Southern Belle that she was, to utter, as she put it, the “unprintable” word the boy used to describe what he had done “with White women’’.

The jury acquitted the men and Carolyn Bryant went on with her life.

Emmett Till
Priscilla Sterling (left) and Anna Laura Cush Williams, cousins of Emmett Till, attend a news conference on February 16, 2023, in Washington about their hope to have a 1955 arrest warrant served on Carolyn Bryant Donham in the kidnapping that led to Till's brutal lynching. Carolyn Bryant, 88, died on April 25, 2023. Image Credit: AP

In America’s long and, yes, tortured racial history, during which thousands of lynchings had taken place, attesting to the nation’s intolerant past, the lynching of Emmett Till loomed large above all others. It galvanised Black America, shaping a whole generation of Black thought about the place African Americans occupied in society and expanding the vocabularly of the public discourse in the shadow of the segregation laws that followed the Reconstruction era in the 1870s, popularly known as Jim Crow laws, enforced largely in the Deep South and the border states up until the late 1960s.

After Emmett’s mutilated body was returned to Chicago, where it was placed in an open casket, his mother told the thousands of mourners who had attended his funeral, “When people saw what happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before” — Black men and women who, when they henceforth thought of Emmett Till, could never allow themselves, ever again, to sit in the back of the bus, their assigned place there.

Mamie Till-Mobley
Mamie Till-Mobley (right), mother of lynching victim Emmett Till, and Wilma Allen of New Orleans, search for their relatives' names on the black granite table at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, on November 5, 1989. A memorial honouring Till-Mobley was be unveiled on April 29, 2023, outside the suburban Chicago high school she attended as a young woman, long before she became a critical player in the Civil Rights Movement. Image Credit: AP

For six decades Ms Bryant kept her thoughts to herself. Then, in 2017, at age 72, she revealed, in the only interview she had given to anyone, that her allegations against the boy had been a fabrication. In it, she told Duke University research scholar Timothy Tyson that she had lied about the incident, denying that Emmett had at the time made verbal or physical advances at her.

In Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till, the author writes that she explained to him that, while on the witness stand, she had told the court outright lies but that now, in the cold light of hindsight, her “instinct” led her to believe that “Nothing that boy did ever justified what happened to him”.

No doubt the reference was to her White supremacist killer instinct.

Last Thursday, Carolyn Bryant died — peacefully, painlessly — in her bed.

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While Americans like, as Thomas Jefferson liked in his time, “the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”, they may do well to also heed George Santayana’s warning that “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”.

And certainly George Floyd would’ve concurred — concurred just before he took his last breath as a White police officer three years ago knelt on his neck and chest for more than nine minutes, choking him to death.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.