emmitt till carolyn bryant

A new book tracks down the wife of one of Emmitt Till’s murderers – and offers more rage than ease.

The brutal 1955 murder of Emmitt Till is what may have launched my curiosity about the civil rights movement. How so much death and conspiracy surrounded it. How it took so much from so many different people of the 1950s and 1960s that the unsung heroes are just now getting their stories told. But it was Till’s murder, his battered, mutilated face posted in Jet Magazine that brought me inward. Till had been brutalized in the same way that James Byrd had been some 43 years later. Their crimes? Being black.

Vanity Fair published an article early Friday morning that had dug into old wounds. It was essentially a promotional piece for author Timothy Tyson’s new book. The subject? The woman at the center of Emmitt Till’s murder, Carolyn Bryant. It was her husband and half brother who committed the brutal slaying of Till in 1955, only to be acquitted by an all-white jury. Months later, they confessed to Till’s murder for a story in Look magazine, with the gain of $3,000 being their prize.

Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster) contains the only interview anyone has done with Carolyn Bryant. She was 21 at the time of the Till murder and what Tyson gathered from the now 82-year-old woman (he interviewed her in 2007 when she was 72) was that the most damning piece of evidence that led to Till’s murder was a lie.

“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.

There’s no sense of regret by Bryant, according to Tyson. She felt sorry for Till’s mother but for what? Her lies got a 14-year-old boy killed all to protect a sense of Mississippi “normalcy”. Even if Tyson’s book contends that the Till case “ruined” her life, why are we so sworn to protect it? Her fragility, her sorrow that she felt in regards to losing one of her own sons and comparing it to Mamie Till-Mobley losing Emmitt? It’s not the same. It never will be the same.

For decades, images and concepts of black men considered as brutes towards white women have been manifested in the media. In film and television. Till’s murder was another anecdote to add in the chapter. The privilege that Carolyn Bryant exudes, even as a woman of advanced age is comical. She won’t face prosecution for her action. She’ll continue to live in anonymity and even though she may feel that “old system of white supremacy was wrong,” she was still complicit in fanning the flames. Even setting some of the fires herself.

What do you do when white patriarchy has been thrown in your face for decades? What do you do when pain gets conflated and you’re told, “It’ll be okay?” Rage builds up. You become bitter, you become despondent, you ultimately will want to give up in the face of it. But you keep fighting on hope. I have no hope that Carolyn Bryant’s story, her “confession” will change minds about civil rights and race relations in this country. Time and the precious protection of white fragility have taught me that it won’t.

About The Author

Brandon Caldwell is the founder & editor-in-chief of Day & A Dream. His work has appeared in VIBE, UPROXX, Complex, EBONY, the Village Voice, the Houston Press, Houston Style Magazine, DJBooth, The Sports Fans Journal, and more. Follow him on Twitter: @_brandoc