Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I got some tea and it involves the death of Emmitt Till’s Accused Killer.
Carolyn Bryant was 21 years old in 1955, she lived a quiet life, raising two sons and working at her husband’s Mississippi grocery, until a 14year-old African American, Emmett Till, stopped in the store for bubble gum one August evening and was said to have wolf-whistled at her on the way out. Days later, on Aug. 28, 1955, Till was abducted, tortured and shot. His body was tethered with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan and submerged in the Tallahatchie River. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that her son’s remains be displayed in an open casket, laying bare for news photographers and the public the horrors of racism in the Deep South. When Bryant’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother J.W. Milam stood trial for Till’s murder, Bryant testified in court that Till had propositioned her a transgression that would have been unforgivable to a White man in the Jim Crow era.
Despite an avalanche of incriminating evidence, an all-White jury in Sumner, Mississippi, acquitted Bryant and Milam after little more than an hour of deliberation. One juror remarked that they would have reached a verdict more quickly had they not “stopped to drink pop.” Shortly thereafter, the defendants confessed to the murder in a paid interview with Look magazine. Bryant, a central and ultimately elusive figure in a lynching that stunned the nation with its brutality and helped spur the civil rights movement, died April 25, 2023 at her home in Westlake, Louisiana. She was 88.
Her death was confirmed by the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office in Lake Charles, La. No cause was given in the statement. Bryant had cancer and was under hospice care, the news site Mississippi Today reported. For years, questions swirled about Bryant’s role in Till’s abduction and whether she had identified Till for his assailants. After shunning interviews for decades, she received renewed attention in 2017 with the publication of the book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” in which the author, Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson, reported that she had recanted key portions of the testimony she had given in court in 1955. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Bryant, who had remarried and taken the name Carolyn Bryant Donham, was said to have told Tyson in a 2008 interview. Shortly after the book’s publication, federal authorities reopened an investigation into Till’s murder and subpoenaed Tyson’s research materials. That investigation was closed in December 2021 with no charges filed.
According to the Justice Department, Bryant denied ever having changed her account. Also according to the department, Tyson claimed to have two recorded interviews with Bryant but provided authorities with only one, which included no recantation. He offered what the Department described as “inconsistent explanations” about whether the alleged confession was on the missing recording or whether Bryant made her remarks before Tyson began taping.
“In closing this matter without prosecution,” the Justice Department declared in a statement, “the government does not take the position that the state court testimony Bryant] gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate. There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events.”
According to Tyson’s book, Bryant was born Carolyn Holloway on July 23, 1934, near Cruger, Mississippi, on a plantation managed by her father. Growing up, her chief playmate was the son of the Holloway family’s African American domestic. A pivotal moment in her childhood, she said, was the day an aunt angrily forbade her to ride on the back of the boy’s bicycle. “I don’t remember being around him much after that,” Bryant said, according to Tyson. “So maybe he and I both got corrected.” Following the death of her father, Carolyn moved with her family to Indianola, Miss. “As I grew older,” she wrote in an unpublished memoir cited in Tyson’s book, “I learned that it was not okay to have black friends, [though] our parents taught us that everyone deserves respect.” Tyson wrote that she recalled a boyfriend taking her to a “hanging tree” where Black men were lynched for “actin’ up.” Carolyn was 14 when she met Roy Bryant at a party and was 16 when they eloped. Among the Bryants and her husband’s extended family, the Milams, she saw herself as “an innocent wandering into a place she didn’t quite belong,” Tyson wrote. By Bryant’s account, her in-laws were heavy drinkers with pronounced streaks of violence and virulent racism.
Private investigations continued, and in 2022 a group of researchers unearthed from a Mississippi courthouse an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for Bryant, along with her husband and Milam, on the charge of kidnapping. Although legal scholars questioned the warrant’s enforceability at that point, Till’s surviving relatives publicly urged that it be served. A grand jury considered charges of kidnapping and manslaughter but declined to indict her. Also in 2022, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting obtained a copy of Bryant’s unpublished memoir, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle.” The manuscript was written with a daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, and housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill library, due to be opened for review in 2036 or after Bryant’s death. “I have always prayed that God would bless Emmett’s family,” Bryant wrote in the memoir, which further fueled questions about inconsistencies in her statements over the years about the events leading up to Till’s murder. “I am truly sorry for the pain his family was caused.”