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A Brutal Lynching And A Possible Confession, Decades Later

Oct 27, 2018
Originally published on October 28, 2018 12:14 pm

On Aug. 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was gruesomely lynched in the small town of Money, Miss. He was a boy from Chicago, visiting his relatives. Although the case is now 63 years old, a recent book has spurred the Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into his death.

Duke professor Tim Tyson has written civil rights history books that have brought national acclaim. Blood Done Sign My Name is a searing memoir of a racial killing in his hometown of Oxford, N.C., in 1970. His father, a Methodist minister, sided with the town's black community and was excoriated as a white traitor.

Tyson's life and worldview were never the same.

A few weeks after Blood Done Sign My Name's publication, Tyson got a phone call. A fan was on the other end raving about how much her mother-in-law loved his memoir and she wanted to meet him.

"You know I sort of pretended she hadn't said it and was getting off the phone, and then she said, 'You might know my mother-in-law, her name was Carolyn Bryant?' "

Indeed Tyson did. Carolyn Bryant had been at the center of one of the country's most infamous racial slayings — the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. Tyson arranged to meet her.

"I went to her house I walked in the door. She gave me a big hug. She served me pound cake and coffee. And she seemed like pretty much any kind of Methodist church lady I've ever known in my life."

Tortured and killed

In 1955, Carolyn Bryant was a strikingly beautiful 21-year-old Mississippi woman, who had married into a rough and violent working-class family. She and her husband were the owners of a small rural grocery store. Bryant was behind the counter that late August day in the summer of 1955, when Emmett Till came in to buy some bubble gum. Tyson says what happened next still is a matter of dispute.

"We do know a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting his relatives in Mississippi had some kind of harmless encounter with a white woman," explained Tyson. "And her kinsmen came in the middle of the night snatched him away from his family at 2:30 in the morning. Drunk men with guns dragged him off, tortured him to death in a tool equipment shed in unspeakable ways and threw his dead body in the river."

Carolyn Bryant's husband and brother-in-law were charged with murdering Till. In her statement to her husband's lawyer at the time, Carolyn said Emmett Till had been sassy and disrespectful when he was at the counter. She told the lawyer that, as the boy left the store, he turned around and said, "Bye baby!"

But Bryant's story eventually changed. And the change came after Emmett Till was buried back in his hometown of Chicago.

An open casket burial became a national story

Till's mother, Mamie Till Bradley, held an open casket funeral for her son. Jet Magazine covered it and published a national story along with a gruesome photo of the badly mutilated child lying in repose. The story and the photo horrified and infuriated African-Americans across the country.

The powerful NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters took up the cause of Till's lynching, and the story spread to major news outlets. So when Carolyn Bryant took the stand back in Mississippi to testify in her husband's murder trial, her story had changed. "She essentially told the age-old story of the black beast rapist," Tyson says. "It was a well-worn story that Southerners black and white have heard for a long time."

Bryant testified that Till grabbed her by the hips and spoke of sex with white women. Even the trial judge was skeptical, and although he allowed Bryant to testify, he sent the jury out of the courtroom while she did. The judge appeared to understand that, in 1955 in Mississippi, testimony of dubious provenance wasn't needed for an all-white jury to find Bryant's husband and brother-in-law innocent of the charges.

In fact, it took little more than an hour to deliver a verdict of not guilty.

'That part's not true'

Nearly 50 years later, in her daughter-in-law's living room, Tyson says Carolyn Bryant told him that she had lied that day in court.

"She started muttering, 'Well they're all dead now anyway.' " Of the attack, the sexual assault, she said, "That part's not true."

Tyson's subsequent book, The Blood of Emmett Till, published in 2017, caused a sensation. Not so much because Bryant's revelation was really all that shocking, but because white Southerners involved in lynching cases usually take the truth of what happened to their graves.

This summer, the FBI quietly reopened the case, requesting the author's notes and tapes of his interview with Bryant. The Justice Department declined NPR's request for comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Carolyn Bryant is now in her 80s and lives with her daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant, in North Carolina. In an interview with NPR, Marsha Bryant denied her mother-in-law had confessed to lying to author Tim Tyson. "What she said on the stand is what's she said all along. She didn't change her story," said Bryant.

This is the second time the Department of Justice has reopened the case. The first was back in 2004. But at that time, a Mississippi grand jury refused to take any further legal action. Nearly 15 years later, Carolyn Bryant is the only person connected to the case who is still alive, and few believe the Justice Department would go so far as to indict her now.

Jim Coleman is a law professor at Duke University and has followed the case. "I don't see anything that would be accomplished by a federal reopening of the case," he said, "other than the publicity of the Justice Department having reopened the case."

The year after Till was killed, in a Look magazine article, Bryant's husband and brother-in-law admitted they had killed Till. They said that they had struck a blow for white supremacy and were proud to do it and that the teenager had it coming.

The Emmett Till generation

The case became a shame upon the nation and a Southern disgrace.

It inspired a generation of young black men and women across the country to go to the Deep South, risk their lives and organize African-Americans to vote.

In 1955, activist Charles Cobb was about same age as Emmett Till. "I can remember even now standing on street corner looking at that photograph with my friends of his body," remembered Cobb. "Those of us who made our way into the civil rights movement in the 1960s call ourselves the Emmett Till generation."

In 1962, Cobb left Howard University in Washington, D.C., and headed for the Mississippi Delta, where Till was killed. He spent the next five years organizing for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"We were an organization of organizers," he said. "And we embedded ourselves in rural black communities, trying to persuade people that gaining the right to vote was worth putting their lives at risk, putting their jobs at risk, putting their homes at risk."

The men who killed a beautiful child from Chicago in order to terrorize the local black community believed they had served the cause of white supremacy well. But in fact, they had done anything but.

Though it would take another decade, the seeds of the Voting Rights Act were planted in 1955, in Mississippi, in Emmett Till's blood.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A young man named Emmett Till was lynched in August of 1955 in the small town of Money, Miss. He was 14 years old, an African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting his relatives. The case is decades old, but a recent book has spurred the Department of Justice to reopen another investigation. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Duke professor Tim Tyson has written two civil rights history books that have brought national acclaim, but as the 59-year-old trundles around his large vegetable garden next to his house in Durham, N.C., Tyson still seems very much the small-town, country boy.

TIM TYSON: Well, you know, the squirrels have it coming. They ate over half of my crop last year, and I'm afraid the Lord called some of them home this year. I buried them in the garden. (Laughter). I thought it poetic justice.

GOODWYN: Tyson's first book, "Blood Done Sign My Name" is a searing memoir of racial murder in his hometown of Oxford, N.C., in 1970. His father, a Methodist minister, sided with the town's black community and was excoriated as a traitor to the white race. Tyson's life and worldview were never the same. A few weeks after publication, the author got a phone call. A fan was on the other end raving about how much her mother-in-law loved his memoir and how she wanted to meet him.

TYSON: You know, I sort of pretended she hadn't said it and thanked her very much and was getting off the phone. And then she said, you might know about my mother-in-law. Her name was Carolyn Bryant.

GOODWYN: Indeed, Tyson did. Carolyn Bryant had been at the center of one of the country's most notorious racial murders, the lynching of Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta.

TYSON: I went to her house. I walked in the door. She gave me a big hug. She served me poundcake and coffee. And she seemed like pretty much any kind of Methodist church lady I've ever known in my life.

GOODWYN: But in 1955, Carolyn Bryant was a striking 21-year-old who'd married into a rough and violent working-class family. She and her husband, Roy, owned a small rural grocery store that catered to local sharecroppers. On August 24, Carolyn was behind the counter when Emmett Till walked in with some friends to buy bubble gum. Tyson says what happened next remains a matter of dispute.

TYSON: We do know a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago visiting his relatives in Mississippi had some kind of harmless encounter with a white woman, and her kinsmen came in the middle of the night, snatched him away from his family at 2:30 in the morning - drunk men with guns - dragged him off, tortured him to death in a tool equipment shed in unspeakable ways and threw his dead body in the river.

GOODWYN: Authorities charged Carolyn Bryant's husband and her brother-in-law with Till's murder. In Bryant's statement to her lawyer, Carolyn described Till as sassy and disrespectful, that when he left the store he turned around and said, bye, baby. But back in Till's hometown of Chicago, his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, held an open casket funeral for her son. Jet magazine was there and published a big story along with a devastating photo of the badly mutilated child lying in repose.

African-Americans across the country were horrified and infuriated by what they saw. The powerful NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters took up the case. The angry and organized reaction across the nation reverberated back to Mississippi. So when Carolyn Bryant took the stand to testify in her husband's murder trial, her story had changed from what she told her lawyer.

TYSON: She essentially told the age-old story of the black-beast rapist. And it was a well-worn story that Southerners, black and white, have heard for a long time.

GOODWYN: Bryant's story evolved. On the stand, she claimed the boy manhandled her and bragged he'd had sex with white women before. The all-white jury took about an hour to find the defendants not guilty. Five decades later, Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Bryant Donham, told the Southern author she admired so much that what she testified to on the stand that day was a lie.

TYSON: She started muttering, well, they're all dead now, anyway. She said of the attack - of the assault, of the sexual part - she said that part's not true.

GOODWYN: Carolyn Bryant eventually moved from Mississippi to North Carolina, where she lives with her daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant. In an interview with NPR, Bryant denied her mother-in-law had recanted to Tyson, saying what she said on the stand is what she said all along. She didn't change her story.

JIM COLEMAN: You would have thought that some of these things would have been put to bed.

GOODWYN: Jim Coleman is a law professor at Duke University. Coleman says the Justice Department reopened the Till case once before, back in 2004, but a Mississippi grand jury declined to take any further legal action. After this latest Till book was published, the FBI quietly reopened the case, asking for and receiving Tyson's notes and research this summer. Coleman is curious about the Justice Department's motives.

COLEMAN: I don't see anything that would be accomplished by a federal reopening of the case other than the publicity of the Justice Department having to reopen the case.

GOODWYN: The Justice Department declined to comment to NPR about this latest investigation. The year after Till was murdered, Bryant's husband and brother-in-law admitted in a magazine article that they indeed had murdered the child but claimed the boy deserved it. The case did more than shame the nation. It motivated to action an entire generation of black organizers.

CHARLES COBB: I can remember even now standing on street corner looking at that photograph with my friends of his body.

GOODWYN: In 1955, Charles Cobb was the same age as Emmett Till, 14 years old. By 1962, Cobb left Howard University where he was a student and headed for the Mississippi Delta and became an organizer for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

COBB: Those of us who made our way into the civil rights movement in the 1960s call ourselves the Emmett Till generation.

GOODWYN: The men who murdered an African-American child from Chicago in order to further terrorize the local black community believe they had served the cause of white supremacy well, but in fact, they'd done anything but. Though it would take another decade, Tyson says the seeds of the Voting Rights Act were actually planted in Mississippi in 1955 in the blood of Emmett Till. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, both online and in the audio, we incorrectly say Blood Done Sign My Name was Tim Tyson's first book.]

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