Carolyn Bryant & Emmett Till: Lies & Lynching in 1955

On August 24, 1955, Carolyn Bryant accused Emmett Till of making verbal and physical advances towards her in her family’s grocery store in Money, Mississippi. On that summer day decades ago, what seemed like a brief moment between a 14-year-old black boy and a 21-year-old white woman actually led to a brutal murder that ended up helping inspire a civil right’s movement in America.

The brutally beaten and bloated body of Till was found days in the Tallahatchie River. He had been kidnapped and lynched by two white men for allegedly harassing Bryant.

Despite overwhelming evidence that the two men had committed the crime, they were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Five decades later, Carolyn Bryant confessed that the most inflammatory parts of her story were lies; Till did not verbally or physically abuse her.

This article aims to examine the lives of Carolyn Bryant and Emmett Till, the lies that led to the vicious murder of the teenager, the trial of the two men, and Bryant’s eventual confession.

Who Was Carolyn Bryant?

Carolyn Holloway was born in Indianola, Mississippi in 1934 into a poor farming family.

Carolyn Bryant

Carolyn Bryant; Image: “The Body of Emmett Till” Documentary Short

At 17, she quit high school to marry Roy Bryant, then 20, a soldier.

Soon after, the couple had two boys, Roy Bryant Jr. and Thomas Lamar Bryant.

Carolyn Bryant and her husband Roy operated a small grocery store, Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, in the small northern Mississippi town of Money. Roy’s brothers helped him set up the store when he got out of the 82nd Airborne in 1953.

Despite operating the lone grocery store in town, Carolyn and Roy Bryant were poor. They lived in the back of the store and didn’t have a TV or a car. Their social life consisted of visiting their families and attending the local Baptist church.

When they could manage to borrow a car, they’d hit the drive-in with their children sleeping in the backseat. Their favorite movie was Shane.

To earn extra cash, Carolyn Bryant looked after Bryant’s Grocery while her husband Roy drove trucks for one of his eight brothers.

Who Was Emmett Till?

Emmett Louis Till had a totally different kind of upbringing. Till was born on July 25, 1941 to Mississippi-born Mamie Till at Cook County Public Hospital in Chicago.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till; Photo: 14EmmettTillBefore on Flikr

“Bobo,” as he was called by family and friends, was raised primarily by his mother. His mostly absent father, Louis, was executed not long after Till was born by the U.S. Army in July 1945 for raping two women and murdering another in Italy.

Mamie remembered her life as a single mother with her son Emmett Till in busy downtown Chicago as being “as close to perfect as you could get.” Despite suffering from polio at an early age that left him with a stutter, he had many friends. According to Mamie, he “was always into something.”

Mamie Till

Mamie Till; Image: “The Body of Emmett Till” Documentary Short

Mamie thought her son would become “a good lawyer or politician.”

Emmett Till Visits Family in Money, Mississippi

On August 20, 1955, just one month after turning 14, Mamie put Emmett Till on a train in Chicago’s Central Station for a two-week vacation with relatives near Money, Mississippi.

During the first three days of his visit, Till took in Mississippi life: picking cotton, stealing the odd watermelon, shooting off fireworks, and swimming in a snake-infested pond. In a letter written to his mother, Till said he was having a lot of fun.

The Grocery Store Incident

On the evening of August 24, 1955, Till and five of his relatives and their friends drove to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market. After hanging around outside the store, Till followed one of the boys inside.

Bryant Market and Meat

Bryant Grocery & Meat Market; Image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvijYSJtkQk

Carolyn Bryant was in the store, working the cash register. After the other boy purchased something, he left, leaving Till alone in the store with Bryant.

What happened next cannot be verified, as only Bryant and Till were in the store…and Till would soon be dead.

It is alleged that Till asked Bryant for some candy from a counter. When Bryant placed the candy on top of the counter, she claimed the 14-year-old grabbed her right hand tightly and asked, “How about a date, baby?”

Bryant said she wrestled her hand free and started to walk away. Till then allegedly grabbed her by the waist near the cash register and said, “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby, I’ve [slept] with white women before.”

Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin, said decades later that he’d entered the store less than a minute after Till had been left inside alone with Bryant. Wright disputed Bryant’s claims, saying he saw no inappropriate behavior. Instead, Wright said he and Till left the store after Till paid for the candy without incident.

The group of boys was hanging around outside the store when Bryant emerged and headed to her car to get, she would later testify, a gun. According to Till’s cousin, as she walked by, Till let out “a loud wolf whistle, a big city ‘whee wheeeee!” But witness accounts of this alleged whistling have since been called into doubt.

Nevertheless, for a northern kid from Chicago, a wolf whistle was no big deal. But a black boy perceived to be whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi was a different thing all together at that time.

Till’s Mississippi cousins feared that Till had broken a strict taboo concerning interaction between black and white people and that they were in real danger. They quickly ran to their car and left Money.

Meanwhile, a distressed Bryant told her sister-in-law about what had allegedly happened. They decided to keep the incident from their husbands. Roy Bryant was away, hauling shrimp from New Orleans to Brownsville, Texas.

When Roy’s half-brother J.W. Milam picked up his wife and Bryant an hour after Till had been in the store, they did not tell him what had happened.

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Bryant’s Husband Returns from Hauling Shrimp

Roy Bryant returned from Texas on August 26, 1955. That afternoon, he was working in his store. A young black customer told Roy that his wife’s interaction with another young black boy was the talk of the town. He identified a teen from Chicago as the offender.

Roy Bryant

Roy Bryant; Photo: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/67043097/roy-bryant

Angry, Roy walked to their living quarters and asked Carolyn Bryant if there was something she wanted to tell him. She told him her version of what had happened (she would later repeat this story at his trial).

Bryant later said she didn’t want to tell her husband about the encounter because she thought Roy would beat Till up.

She urged Roy to forget about it, but he didn’t. To not do anything to Till would, Roy later said, make him look like a “coward and a fool.”

Roy Bryant Plans to Teach 14-Year-Old a “Lesson”

On the evening of August 27, 1955, Roy decided he needed to kidnap Emmett Till and “teach him a lesson.” In the Ku Klux Klan south, this was a long-held, grim tradition.

At about 10:30 p.m., his-half-brother Milam stopped by Bryant’s Grocery. When Roy told him he planned to “whip the n—–,” Milam readily agreed to help.

J.W. Milam

J.W. Milam; Photo: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/100434192/j.-w.-milam

The two men drank and played cards together and, according to the FBI, they were “particularly close.” Those who knew Roy and Milam described the pair as “peckerwoods” and “white trash.”

That night, Roy, Milam, Carolyn Bryant, and Johnny Washington, a black man who helped Roy with odd jobs, took off in a pickup truck looking for Till.

They spotted a black teenager and Washington tossed him in the back of the truck. When Bryant got out of the truck to look at him, she said, “That’s not the n—–! That’s not the one!”

Washington threw the teen out of the truck; he landed head first and lost his front teeth.

The Lynching of Emmett Till

In the early hours of August 28, 1955, Roy and Milam figured out where Till was staying.

At 2:30 a.m., they pulled up in front of the home of Mose Wright, Till’s great-uncle. Roy identified himself and asked to talk to “a fat boy” from Chicago.

Milam entered the house and found Till asleep in bed. Upon being woken up, Till allegedly admitted he was the one who “did the talking down at Money.” He was taken from the house and into the truck.

Standing on the porch, Wright heard a woman’s voicepossibly Carolyn Bryanttelling the abductors they had found the right kid. Milam told Wright they’d come back and kill him if he told anyone they’d been here.

What happened over the next three or four hours is not entirely known. It’s been argued that multiple men were part of the abduction and murder that night.

One witness named Willie Reed claimed to have seen Till riding in a pickup truck with four white men and three black men.

According to Roy and Milam, they just wanted to “whip [Till]…and scare some sense into him.”

Milam claimed they drove around looking for a sheer 100-foot cliff into the Mississippi River, but they couldn’t find the spot. Instead, they decided to drive to a barn on the farm of Leslie Milam, the brother of J.W., near Drew, Mississippi.

The men in the truck took Emmett Till to the barn, where he was pistol whipped. It is here that Till was probably shot and killed.

Barn Where Emmett Till Was Murdered

Barn Where Till Was Murdered; Image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3c9vP56N_6g

Roy and Milam said that during the beating, Till was defiant, telling his abductors that he wasn’t afraid of them. According to them, Till said, “I’m as good as you are. I’ve had white women.”

Milam said, “When a n—– gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired of living. I’m likely to kill him… I stood there in that shed and listened to that n—– throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind.”

After the pickup left the farm, it stopped at Milam’s store in Glendora. A witness noticed blood running out of the back of the truck. When it was pointed out to Milam, he claimed he had killed a deer. When he was told it wasn’t deer season, he allegedly pulled the tarp back, revealing Till’s body. “This is what happens to smart n—–s,” he said.

Bryant and Milam decided to throw Till’s body into the Tallahatchie River. But before doing so, they tied a 74-pound cotton-gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, hoping his body would never be found.

Till’s Body Discovered in Tallahatchie River

Three days later, a boy by the name of Robert Hodges was fishing in the Tallahatchie when he noticed two feet sticking out of the water. He pulled the beaten, bloated body out of the river and into his boat.

Hodges and others saw a silver ring on one of the fingers of the body. Mose Wright, who was called to the scene, identified the body of Emmett Till. The ring was given to Wright, who later turned it over to LeFlore County Deputy Sheriff John Ed Cothran.

The Funeral of Emmett Till

Till’s body was returned to Chicago, where a large crowd gathered at the Illinois Central Station saw the paper-wrapped body being lifted into a waiting hearse.

His mother Mamie, seeing how brutally beaten her son was, insisted he be displayed in an open casket so viewers could see what the murderers did to him.

Roughly 50,000 people filed by Till’s casket in the funeral chapel at 4141 Cottage Grove.

Mamie told reporters, “Unless an example is made of the lynchers of Emmett, it won’t be safe for a Negro to walk the streets anywhere in America.”

Emmett Till Body

Photos of Emmett Till’s Brutalized Body & His Funeral on Display in Chicago (2005); Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam Arrested

Within a day of Till’s disappearance, Roy and Milam were arrested for his abduction. When Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, the charges were upgraded to murder.

Roy and Milam admitted to abducting Till from the home of Wright, but insisted they let him go later that night in Money.

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam; Image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvijYSJtkQk

Days after their arrest, Carolyn Bryant told her husband’s lawyer that Till had only insulted her. She never mentioned any physical contact.

While there was outrage across the U.S., in the South, the lynching of Till was used to uphold segregation and send a message to” outsiders.”

So there was a great deal of local support. In fact, all five lawyers in the town of Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was to be held, agreed to defend Roy and Milam.

To help out with their defense, supporters placed collection jars in public places, raising $10,000.

To taint the eventual trial with reasonable doubt, the arch segregationist and racist Sheriff Clarence Strider said he didn’t believe the body pulled from the Tallahatchie River was that of Till.

“The body we took from the river looked more like that of a grown man instead of a young boy,” the Tallahatchie County sheriff said. “It was also more decomposed than it should have been after that short stay in the water.”

Sheriff George Smith of adjoining LeFlore County said Strider’s declaration was news to him. “I thought the body had been positively identified,” Smith said. “One of my deputies took the ring and carried it to the boy’s home where I understand it was identified as Till’s ring. That’s all I know about the identification.”

The Sham Trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam

Jury selection began on September 19, 1955. The odds of finding an objective group of 12 men were remote. In 1955, none of the black residents of Tallahatchie County were registered to vote. Because of jury selection rules, no black residents were eligible to serve as jurors.

Incredibly, during the six hours of jury selection, the county’s sheriff-elect helped the defense team decide which jurors were “doubtful” and which were “safe.” One defense attorney later said, “After the jury was chosen, any first-year law student could have won the case.”

The selected jury members; Photo: Library of Congress

Still, Strider’s office wanted to ensure the trial would end swiftly. Two potential key witnesses, both black men who allegedly helped Roy and Milam abduct and murder Till, were unavailable to the prosecution.

Prosecutors thought Leroy “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Loggins had gone missing. They hadn’t. They were actually being held in a jail in Charleston, Mississippi under false identities. The order had been given by Strider.

Mose Wright was the first witness for the prosecution. He testified that Roy and Milam came to his home and took Till, and he also identified the two men in court. Wright also told jurors he had identified the body pulled from the river and taken the silver ring off Till’s finger.

A litany of witnesses for the prosecution left no reasonable doubt that Roy and Milam had abducted Till. And there was little doubt they had killed Till just hours later.

All the while, Strider refused to admit black journalists in court. When Judge Curtis Swango overruled Strider, he segregated them from white journalists and forced them to sit at a card table in a small room off to the side of the courtroom.

On September 22, 1955, the prosecution rested.

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi

Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi; Image: “The Body of Emmett Till” Documentary Short

The Testimony of Carolyn Bryant

Carolyn Bryant was the first witness for the defense. But her testimony was not heard by the jury. Swango dismissed jury members from the courtroom because he ruled that her testimony was not relevant to the murder of Till.

Roy Bryant & Carolyn Bryant in Court

Roy & Carolyn Bryant in Court; Image: “The Body of Emmett Till” Documentary Short

Before the judge, Bryant testified that “just after dark,” a “n—– man came in the store and he stopped there at the candy case.” She said Till asked for candy, which she put on the counter, and she then held out her hand for money.

Defense attorney Sidney Carlton asked if Till gave her the money.

“No. He caught my hand.”

Bryant went on to say that Till had grasped all of her fingers in his one hand. She added it took a lot of effort to rip her hand loose as Till asked her, “How about a date, baby?”

When Bryant tried to walk away, she testified that Till grabbed her by the waist and said, “You needn’t be afraid of me.” Bryant alleged that Till then used an “unprintable word” to explain what he had done “with white women before.”

The “terrified-to-death” Bryant said she was then able to free herself from Till when “this other n—– came in the store and got him by the arm.” Till was said to have left the grocery store “unwillingly.”

Bryant said she then ran out of the store to her car to retrieve a gun. It is then that Till allegedly whistled at her.

Roy and Milam Found Not Guilty

During closing arguments, District Attorney Gerald Chatham demanded justice for the murder of Till. He insisted Roy and Milam “were dripping with the blood of Emmett Till.”

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, told jurors, “Every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to set these men free.”

When jurors went to deliberate, he sheriff-elect told jurors to wait a while before coming back to the court to make “it look good.” The jurors returned to court 68 minutes later. One juror later said the verdict would have come sooner, except they enjoyed Cokes first.

The defendants were relieved to hear a “not guilty” verdict. But their troubles weren’t over yet: there were still kidnapping charges hanging over their heads. But a LeFlore County grand jury refused to indict Roy and Milam on the kidnapping charges and both men were released from custody.

Aftermath of the Not-Guilty Verdict

The jury’s acquittal caused international outrage, angry editorials, and protests. In fact, the murder of Emmett Till helped spark the American civil rights movement.

But the acquittal also meant it was open season on black Americans for racist white people.

In November 1955, a white man allegedly killed a black gas station attendant in Glendora, Mississippi after they argued about how much gas was put in a car. The suspect, Elmer Kimbell, was acquitted in the same Sumner courtroom where the Roy and Milam trial was held.

Within four years of the Roy and Milam trial, over 21% of the black population in Tallahatchie County had left.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey an order to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white person. This led to a boycott of the Montgomery bus system.

What made Parks refuse to get up? Parks wrote, “The news of Emmett’s death caused me…to participate in the cry for justice and equal rights.”

In a 1988 interview, author Timothy Tyson asked Parks why she didn’t go to the back of the bus. Parks said she thought about it, but then she thought about Till and she couldn’t do it.

Rosa Parks

Photo of Rosa Parks & the Bus She Made Famous; Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

August 28, the date of Till’s murder, has become an important date in American history. On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and on August 28, 2008, Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

Roy and Milam Admit Guilt in “Look” Magazine

On January 24, 1956, just months after being acquitted of murdering Till, Roy and Milam admitted they murdered the black teen in a Look magazine article, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”

Knowing they were protected by the double jeopardy rule, the two men detailed how they beat Till with a gun, shot him, and rolled his body into 20 feet of water in the Tallahatchie River. They admitted they’d weighed his body down with a heavy fan attached around his neck with barbed wire.

They were paid $3,500 for the exclusive magazine interview. That was as good as it got for Roy and Milam.

Both Roy and Milam’s stores catered to the local black community, and they were roundly boycotted. Within 15 months, their stores were either shuttered or sold. Black laborers refused to work on the Milam farm and Milam turned to bootlegging.

Those who helped with their legal defense were also offended that the two men had sold their story to Look.

John Milam died of cancer in 1980 and Roy Bryant died of cancer in 1994.

Sheriff Clarence Strider was criticized in national and Mississippi newspapers and black families left his 6,000-acre plantation to find work elsewhere. In 1957, Strider narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while he sat in his car in front of a store in Cowart, Mississippi.

Amazingly, Strider’s son later said that his father was simply misunderstood and was just “doing his job.”

Justice Department Reopens Emmett Till Case in 2004

In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the Emmett Till case amid suggestions that other people, many of whom were still alive, might have participated in the kidnapping and murder.

After the trial, several men, both black and white, reportedly admitted to friends or family that they had been present the night Roy and Milam kidnapped and murdered Till. They were never prosecuted.

In 2005, the FBI exhumed the body of Till and performed an autopsy. The body was positively identified as Till’s. Metallic fragments in Till’s skull suggested he was shot with a .45 caliber gun.

2005 Exhumation of Emmett Till

Exhumation of Emmett Till’s Body (2005); Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

In 2007, a grand jury in LeFlore County, made up mostly of black Americans, decided against seeking an indictment against additional people.

Carolyn Bryant Admits Her Story Was a Lie

Carolyn Bryant kept under the radar after her husband was acquitted of murdering Till. She later divorced Roy, saying he was physically abusive. She married two more times.

In The Blood of Emmett Till, author Timothy Tyson revealed that in 2007, Carolyn Bryant Donham, then 72 years of age, admitted that she had made up the most damning parts of her testimony.

“That part’s not true,” she told Tyson regarding Till making verbal and physical advances.

Carolyn Bryant

Carolyn Bryant (2012); Photo: https://www.facebook.com/carolann.bryant.50

She added, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” She also admitted she “felt tender sorrow” for Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley,  who died in 2003 after a life of civil rights advocacy.

What Really Happened in Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market?

What really happened in the grocery store on August 24, 1955? Aside from the fact that Till did not touch her or say anything offensive, Bryant Donham said she now can’t remember what events transpired that day.

She wrote her memoirs and her manuscript is in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of Northern California Chapel Hill library archives. But it will not be available for public viewing until 2036.

As mentioned previously, Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin, said there was no inappropriate behavior and he heard “no lecherous conversation.”

Is it possible that Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant in the grocery store while the two of them were alone together? His mother Mamie refused to believe that her son had whistled at Carolyn Bryant.

Mamie said Till had a speech impediment, a stutter. She taught him to whistle softly to himself before pronouncing certain words or letters to help him articulate them better.

Till was known to have difficulty with the letter “B” and he’d been ordering bubblegum in the store. It’s possible that Till was only trying to ask for bubblegum.

Because of his speech impediment, some have even called into question the wolf whistle that Till allegedly directed at Carolyn Bryant outside the store. It’s also been claimed that Till might have whistled not at Bryant, but after seeing a checkers move being made on the store’s porch.

Regardless, even if he did whistle at Bryant, he certainly didn’t deserve to be brutally assaulted and shot to death.

U.S. Reopens Emmett Till Investigation

The U.S. government quietly reopened its investigation into the brutal murder of Emmett Till in March 2018. The Justice Department told Congress in a March report it had received “new information.”

Emmett Till's Grave

Emmett Till’s Grave at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Illinois; Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The federal report, which is sent to lawmakers annually under a law that bears Till’s name, does not say what the new information is. But it is thought that the new information may be related to the 2017 release of Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till, the book in which Carolyn Bryant admits to lying about what happened between her and the 14-year-old Chicago teen.

Other than the release of that book, it’s difficult to say what prompted the Justice Department to reopen the Till investigation.

Carolyn Bryant could not be reached for comment. Tyson said he supports the inquiry, but he believes it is a political show to distract from President Donald Trump’s ongoing controversies. He noted that he had spoken with the FBI in 2017 and complied with a subpoena for his research materials.

Sadly, even if Bryant had told the truth back in 1955, chances are the legal outcome would have been the same in the racist South. Joyce Chiles, a former Mississippi district attorney who was involved in the 2004 review of the Till case, noted, “I don’t think it would have resulted in a different verdict.”

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