The brutal kidnapping, beating and murder of Emmett Till is often taught as history, but the fight to bring those involved to justice continues 67 years later.
In August 1955, Chicago teenager Emmett Till was visiting family in Mississippi.
He was accused of whistling at a married white woman named Carolyn Bryant in a grocery store. Four days later, he was kidnapped from his great-uncle’s house in the middle of the night. Till was brutally beaten, mutilated and finally shot. His body was then sunk into the Tallahatchie River, only to be discovered three days later.
When his body was returned to Chicago, Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, insisted on an open casket funeral, despite the grotesque state of her son’s body. The photographs of his body would become some of the most influential images ever taken, inspiring many to join the Civil Rights Movement.
Till’s killers were Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s enraged husband, and JW Milam, Roy’s half-brother. Roy Bryant and Milam were found not guilty by an all-white jury in one of the most publicized court cases in history. They later admitted to the lynching. They sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000.
Till’s legacy as a civil rights martyr lives on (in March, Congress passed the Emmett Till lynching law), but the fight for justice also continues. The same month that Congress passed the law that bears his name, Emmett Till’s family came to the Mississippi capitol to demand justice.
“We will witness the hate that has been embedded in our DNA since the slave ships came,” said Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. “We promised Mamie that she would persist and that is why we are here today.”
However, the foundation wasn’t just asking, it was also looking for documents at a Mississippi courthouse. What they found may ultimately lead to someone serving time.
Inside a file, inside a box marked only by its decade, was the arrest warrant for the murder. He listed three names, Roy Bryant, JW Milam and Mrs. Roy Bryant. Written in ballpoint pen were two check marks above the names of the two men. There was no check mark above Mrs. Roy Bryant. Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Bryant Donham, was never arrested or tried in the case.
Deborah Watts’ daughter, Terri, joined her in the search for the document. Terri Watts told the Associated Press that Donham should be arrested and charged.
“Pour it up and load it up,” Teri Watts told the AP in an interview.
The arrest warrant for Donham, now 80 and living in North Carolina, was public knowledge at the time of the trial. However, the LeFlore County Sheriff at the time said he didn’t want to “bother her” because she had small children.
August 20, 1955
14-year-old Emmett Till leaves Chicago on a train from the 63rd Street Station bound for Mississippi, where he will visit his family.
August 21, 1955
Till arrives in Money, Mississippi, and begins staying with his uncle Moses Wright.
August 24, 1955
Till and several other teenagers go to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Till talks to Carolyn Bryant, one of the grocery store’s white owners. There are conflicting accounts of what happened, but Till allegedly flirted with and possibly whistled at Bryant.
August 28, 1955
Around 2:30 a.m., Roy Bryant and JW Milam kidnap Till from the Wright house. They brutally beat the teenager and eventually shot him in the head before dumping his body into the Tallahatchie River, loaded down with a large fan used in cotton processing.
August 29, 1955
Roy Bryant and Milam are arrested on kidnapping charges in LeFlore County. Carolyn Bryant is also listed on the warrant, but she is not under arrest.
August 31, 1955
Till’s body is discovered and pulled from the river. Wright identifies the body based on Till’s ring, which once belonged to his father.
September 3, 1955
Till’s funeral is held at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Chicago. His mother, Mamie Till, insists on an open casket. Thousands of people wait in line to see the body, and the images are seen around the world.
September 6, 1955
Until I’m buried. A grand jury in Mississippi indicts Roy Bryant and Milam with murder. They plead not guilty.
September 19, 1955
The trial begins in Sumner, Mississippi, with jury selection. An all-white male jury is selected.
September 21, 1955
In one of the most iconic moments of the trial, Wright stands up on the witness stand and points directly at Milam, identifying him as the man he saw his nephew kidnapped.
September 23, 1955
After just over an hour of deliberation, the jury finds Roy Bryant and Milam not guilty of murder. They cannot be charged again for the same crime. The defendants smoke cigars and kiss their wives for the photographers.
September 30, 1955
Roy Bryant and Milam are released from jail, although kidnapping charges are still pending.
November 9, 1955
A grand jury does not indict Roy Bryant and Milam on kidnapping charges. Carolyn Bryant was never arrested or charged. The two men are now free.
January 24, 1956
Look Magazine publishes an interview with Roy Bryant and Milam where they admit to kidnapping and murdering Till, and describe how they did it. Reporter William Bradford Huie paid them $4,000 for their story.
December 30, 1980
Milam dies of stomach cancer at the age of 61.
August 25, 1985
In an interview with Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News, Roy Bryant denies killing Till, despite confessing nearly 30 years earlier. “Hell no, I didn’t!” Bryant said, although he later says that Till deserved what he got. “I feel this way: If Emmett Till hadn’t crossed the line, it probably wouldn’t have happened to him.”
September 1, 1994
Roy Bryant dies of cancer at the age of 63.
May 10, 2004
The Justice Department announces that it will reopen the Till case to investigate whether anyone other than Roy Bryant and Milam was involved. A series of federal investigations will follow.
February 27, 2007
A largely black grand jury indicts Carolyn Bryant Donham, along with others, after they fail to find significant evidence that they participated in the kidnapping or lynching.
January 31, 2017
Author Timothy Tyson publishes “The Blood of Emmett Till,” in which he claims that Bryant Donham told him during a 2008 interview that his accusations against Till were untrue. Tyson did not have his retraction on tape, but he did have it in his 2008 interview notes. Relatives of Bryant Donham have said that she never recanted his accusations.
December 6, 2021
The Justice Department closes its investigation into Till’s lynching without finding any more suspects.
March 29, 2022
President Joe Biden signs the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act.
June 29, 2022
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation announces that they have found the original kidnapping warrant, which includes Bryant Donham. Till’s ancestors ask that she be arrested and charged.