Published on May 4th, 2023 | by Randy Weeks0
The View From The Balcony: Another Chapter Ends on the Emmett Till Case
On April 25 Carolyn Bryant Donham’s voice was silenced when she died under hospice care in Westlake, Louisiana. For those who don’t know, she was working in her family-owned Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, when in 1955 Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black child from Chicago who was visiting relatives, walked into Bryant’s store with his cousin, Wheeler Parker. Till said good-bye to Donham (then Bryant) as he was leaving the store, then wolf-whistled at Donham. Parker has confirmed this. There were other reports that said Till put his arm around Donham’s waist and flirted with her, saying that he had been with white women before and he knew how to handle them. Parker said that part of the story was a lie.
Donham, as history tells it, told her sister-in-law, Juanita Milam. They vowed not to tell their husbands, but eventually the word got out. A night or two later Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam kidnapped Till and took him to a barn in Tallahatchie County where they brutalized, tortured, and murdered Till. They tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury pronounced Bryant and Milam not guilty. Not too long after that they admitted in a magazine interview that they, in fact, had murdered Till.
Till’s ghastly murder empowered black America and was one of, if not the, seminal event that started the Civil Rights Movement. In ensuing decades Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, and Juanita Milam died, leaving Donham as the only known surviving participant in this horrendous event. For the rest of her life she was followed by the press, law enforcement, and other researchers trying to confirm her words about the flirting.
In 2007 in an interview with Timothy Tyson for his book The Blood of Emmett Till, Donham gave a four-word confession, admitting that her story was false and that Till had done nothing that could justify what happened to him.
Last year it was discovered that at the time of Till’s death a warrant had been issued for Donham, but never served, reportedly because she had children. The case was re-opened, but a grand jury chose not to indict Donham. So at the age of eighty-nine, she took the truth about what she told her husband to the grave with herwords that condemned Till and that only she could know.
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp did painstaking research into the Till case for his 2005 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Largely because of new information Beauchamp uncovered, Till’s case was re-opened. Last year Till, a full-length award-winning feature film, produced and co-written by Beauchamp, was released.
For some who have committed themselves through the years to finding all the truth, this is where the book closes. For others the search goes on. Justice for most would have been Donham arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed. What will justice look like now? There are still researchers, historians, and family members who have hope that someday solid documentation of Donham’s part in this heinous tragedy will be discovered. If it is out there it should be found. Until then the specter of the unsolved continues to hang over our nation and, especially, Mississippi.
Here are the lyrics to a song I wrote about Till in 2005 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his lynching, and my 50th birthday. I was living in Greenwood, Mississippi, and would cycle down Money Road past the remains of Bryant’s Grocery regularly.
The Tallahatchie River is dirty, dark, and deep, and there are many secrets she will always keep. But back in 1955, I guess she’d had her fill When she gave up the body of a child named Emmett Till. It’s a long way from Chicago to the heart of Dixieland, and why they let him come here, I’ll never understand, to a place where law and justice don’t always mean the same, and if a black child comes up missing, no one takes the blame. I’ve seen the store in Money where they say he crossed the line. It’s rotted and it’s ruined; it’s swallowed up with vines. And I’ve seen the Sumner courthouse, where they set the bastards free, who claimed they were defending their homes and families. Now Mississippi’s changing. They say she ain’t the same. They tell me black and white there are burying their pain. I can’t help but wonder if Emmett prays it’s true, and if his restless spirit smiles down on me and you. Emmett Till, Emmett Till does your soul wander still, ore the flatlands of the Delta and the Tallahatchie fields. Does your soul cry out for justice? Do you think it always will? Will there be any peace for the soul of Emmett Till?
…and that’s the view from The Balcony.
Randy Weeks is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Certified Shamanic Life Coach, an ordained minister, a singer-songwriter, and an actor. Randy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Emmett Till, Emmett Till (does your soul wander still?)” © Copyright 2009, Randall S. Weeks. All rights reserved.