This white woman’s false testimony led to a black teenager’s murder in 1955.
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he left his home in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. On August 24, 1955, he entered a country store to buy bubble gum. A week later, his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River; his corpse was so mutilated he could only be identified by the ring he wore on his finger.
The next month, Roy Bryant and his brother in law, J.W. Milam, were charged with kidnapping and murdering Emmett. During the trial, Roy’s 21-year-old wife, Carolyn Bryant, took the stand to explain her role in the events that led to Emmett’s murder. She said she’d been working alone the night Emmett entered the store that she co-owned with Roy. She said Emmett grabbed her around waist, made lewd comments and whistled.
Carolyn then told her brother and her husband, who were so enraged they apparently decided to settle the matter themselves.
The jury was not present to hear Carolyn’s testimony. The judge had dismissed them, ruling that Carolyn’s claims were not relevant to the murder.
It took the all-white, all-male jury 1 hour to acquit both men.
Carolyn disappeared after testifying in the case. She remarried and spent most of her life hidden away by family, refusing all interviews. But in 2007, at the age of 72, Carolyn agreed to speak with writer Timothy Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University and the author of an upcoming book called “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which will be released Tuesday.
Vanity Fair reported Thursday that the book contains a shocking admission: Carolyn recanted her statement about what Emmett allegedly did to her in the grocery store:
“That part’s not true,” she told Tyson, about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her. As for the rest of what happened that evening in the country store, she said she couldn’t remember.”
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, chose to leave her son’s casket open during his funeral so the public might witness the full extent of the brutality that claimed his young life. Her heroic decision put a human face on lynching and became a rallying cry for civil rights activists.
Carolyn, now 82, lives in an undisclosed location. Her memoirs, “More Than a Wolf Whistle” are being held at the University of North Carolina, where, per her request, they will not be released until 2036.
Emmett’s story feels especially relevant; the character assassination waged against him after his death is the same one black teens like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown face today. This vindication for Emmett and his family is much deserved, albeit far too late to change anything.