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Murder of Emmett Till based on lies

2/10/2017, 8:13 p.m.
The woman at the center of the trial of Emmett Till’s alleged killers has acknowledged that she falsely testified he ...
This undated family photo shows Emmett Till with his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, in Chicago before his lynching in 1955 in Money, Miss., for supposedly making sexual advances toward Carolyn Donham, left, in a 1955 photo. She now admits her lies led to the brutal murder of the 14-year-old. Mamie Till Mobley/Associated Press

By Hillel Italie

AP National Writer

NEW YORK

The woman at the center of the trial of Emmett Till’s alleged killers has acknowledged that she falsely testified he made physical and verbal threats, according to a new book.

Gene Herrick/Associated Press

Gene Herrick/Associated Press

Historian Timothy B. Tyson told The Associated Press that Carolyn Donham broke her long public silence in an interview with him in 2008. His book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” was published Jan. 31.

“She told me that ‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,’” said Mr. Tyson, a Duke University research scholar whose previous books include “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “Radio Free Dixie.”


This 2015 photo shows Emmett Till’s grave marker in Alsip, Ill., on the 60th anniversary of his killing.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

This 2015 photo shows Emmett Till’s grave marker in Alsip, Ill., on the 60th anniversary of his killing.

Emmett Till was just 14 years old when he was tortured and killed in 1955 in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a white woman, Ms. Donham. His murder became national news and was a galvanizing event in the Civil Rights Movement. It also has been the subject of numerous books and movies.

During the trial, Ms. Donham said that he had grabbed her, and, in profane terms, bragged about his history with white women. The jury was not present when she testified.

Ms. Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted by the all-white jury. Both men, who later told Look magazine they murdered Emmett, have since died. Mr. Milam’s widow, Juanita Milam, would later tell the FBI she believed that Ms. Donham had fabricated her story. Juanita Milam died in 2014.

The Justice Department re-examined the case a decade ago, but no one was indicted as a murderer or an accomplice.

Last month, the maker of a documentary on Emmett said he had long been sure that Ms. Donham’s story was false.

“His mother had mentioned that Emmett had a speech impediment and that the things Bryant claimed he was saying he could not have said easily,” said Keith Beauchamp, whose “The Untold Story of Emmett Till” came out in 2005.

Mr. Tyson said that he spoke with Ms. Donham after her daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, contacted him. Marsha Bryant had read “Blood Done Sign My Name,” about a racist murder during his childhood in Oxford, N.C., and invited Mr. Tyson to meet with her and Ms. Donham.

Mr. Tyson said he and Ms. Donham had two conversations, both lasting two to three hours, and that he planned at the time to place the material in the archives at the University of North Carolina. Asked why he waited so long to publicize his findings, he responded that historians think in different terms than journalists.

“I’m more interested in what speaks to the ages than in what is the latest media thing,” he said.

He added that he wasn’t sure whether Ms. Donham knew about the book. He said he had fallen out of touch with the family and that when he last spoke with Marsha Bryant, a few years ago, she said Ms. Donham was in poor health.

Emmett was a fun-loving teenager from Chicago visiting the Mississippi Delta and helping out on his great-uncle Mose Wright’s farm. On Aug. 24, 1955, Emmet and some other kids drove to a local store, Bryant’s, for refreshments. At Bryant’s, some of the kids stayed on the porch, watching a game of checkers, while the others filed inside to buy bubblegum and sodas.