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Black History

Decades Later and the Truth Is Revealed: Her Lie Cost Emmett Till His Life

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by G. Brown

It’s the one story that makes people, especially Blacks shutter with grief and rage. The story of how 14 year old Emmett Till  was brutally killed will soon be a movie as JayZ and Will Smith were working to produce the project.  For more than 60 years, the story has been an undercurrent in the Black community—but often overlooked by history books and classes.

The NY Times recently ran an article on the woman whose accusations caused his murder. Carolyn Bryant Donham testified in court that the 14 year old “whistled at her”, “grabbed her” and made inappropriate comments of a sexual nature towards her.

Till was visiting family in Mississippi when his path crossed Donham’s at a local store where the child was buying bubble gum. Donham created an entirely false narrative that Jim Crow laws of 1955 allowed to push justice and reality out of the equation and fueled the hatred of two men who would kidnap, torture and kill the child in retaliation.  More than 60 years after his gruesome end, Donham admitted it was all a lie.

The truth came out when the Donham family contacted historical writer and Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson who took the information and wrote a book, “The Blood of Emmett Till”—soon to be published. Tyson said in 2007, Donham finally confessed that she made up the whole story.  She admitted that Till never whistled at her, grabbed her, touched her hand or made any advances on her.  Donham was 72 when she finally admitted the truth.  She is now 82 years old and her family is keeping her current residence a secret as a means to protect her.

Tyson says Donham told him, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”  Donham also said she “felt tender sorrow” for Till’s mother Mamie Till who died in 2003.  At the time of her son’s funeral Mamie Till insisted on having an open casket because she wanted the world to see how hatred left her son disfigured from torture almost to the point that he was unrecognizable.

Donham’s confession still sounds as though she is not taking responsibility for her part in the boy’s murder.  Her admission of “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”–sounds like he did do something.  Donham also seems unattached and makes it sound like the boy was the victim of unfortunate circumstances rather than the victim of her lie.

Tyson was contacted apparently to help Donham write her memoirs setting her up to potentially profit once again from Till’s sacrifice if any of the money were to go to her or her family.

They say that history is written by the victors, but Donham proves it’s also written by liars, injustice and hatred. Donham’s confession isn’t really a bombshell to most people who could look at the story and see the lie.  How could a kid who used probably his only two-cents to buy bubble gum be mature enough to hit on a full grown woman of any color? But in the South in 1955, no one was looking for truth or justice.

Till’s murder was a major catalyst behind the Civil Right’s Movement,  but learning the truth now all these years after Till’s murder brings no peace, no relief, no sense of “justice finally”. Till’s sacrifice was still too horrible a price for a child to pay.  Donham didn’t reveal a reason why she lied, but is there any reason that would be justifiable? Her confession seems to only come from a woman who thinks she is safe now from any legal action or as the act of a woman who fears her own mortality may be soon be at hand.

Some think despite how long it took her to finally tell the truth, in wake of the racism that’s been reignited following Trump’s campaign and presidency, Donham’s story can help galvanize once again the fight for equality by reminding us that the past is never far enough behind us.

What do you think…are you relieved for the Till family and his memory that Donham told the truth finally? Or is this one secret that she should have taken to the grave?

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