JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A Mississippi grand jury has declined to indict the white woman whose accusation sparked the lynching of black teenager Emmett Till nearly 70 years ago, most likely closing the case that shocked a nation and galvanized the modern civil rights movement.
After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses, a Leflore County grand jury determined last week that there was insufficient evidence to charge Carolyn Bryant Donham with kidnapping and manslaughter, Leflore County District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said in a news release Tuesday.
The Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr., cousin of Emmett Till and the last living witness to Till’s abduction on August 28, 1955, said Tuesday’s announcement was “unfortunate, but predictable.”
“The prosecutor did his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that ensured that those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day,” he said. Parker said in a statement.
“The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured and murdered Emmett did so in full view, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice. justice for their heinous crimes.”
Ollie Gordon, another cousin of Till, told The Associated Press that justice was done in Till’s case, despite the grand jury’s decision.
“Justice isn’t always about locking someone up and throwing away the keys,” Gordon said. “Mrs. Donham didn’t go to jail. But in many ways I don’t think she’s had a good life. I think every day she wakes up she has to deal with the atrocities that have happened. because of his actions.
An email and voicemail requesting comment from Donham’s son, Tom Bryant, was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
In June, a group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse discovered the unissued arrest warrant charging Donham, her then-husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law JW Milam in the kidnapping of Till in 1955. As the men were arrested and acquitted of murder charges during Till’s subsequent murder, Donham, 21 at the time, was never arrested.
The 14-year-old Chicago boy was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and other children went to the Money City store where Carolyn Bryant worked. Relatives told the AP that Till whistled at the white woman, but denied touching her.
In an unpublished memoir obtained by the AP last month, Donham said Milam and her husband brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification, but she tried to help the youngster, denying that it was. was him. She claimed that Till then volunteered to say he was the one they were looking for.
Till’s battered and disfigured body was found days later in a river, where it was weighed down by a heavy metal fan. The decision of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till’s casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and fueled the civil rights movement.
After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the kidnapping and murder in an interview with Look magazine. They were not charged with a federal crime and both are long dead.
In 2004, the United States Department of Justice opened an investigation into Till’s murder after receiving inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still alive.
Till’s body was exhumed, in part to confirm it was him. A 2005 autopsy revealed that Till had died of a gunshot wound to the head and had broken bones in his wrist, skull and femur.
In 2006, the FBI launched its Cold Case Initiative with the goal of identifying and investigating racially motivated killings. Two years later, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
The Justice Department said the statute of limitations has run out for any potential federal crimes, but the FBI has been working with state investigators to determine if state charges can be brought. In February 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict anyone, and the Justice Department announced it was closing the case.
But federal officials announced last year that they were once again closing their investigationclaiming that there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI”.
Timothy Tyson, the North Carolina historian who interviewed Donham for his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till” said the newly rediscovered warrant did nothing to “materially change the concrete evidence against her”. But he said the renewed attention to the case should “force Americans” to confront the racial and economic disparities that still exist here.
“The Till case will not go away because the racism and callous indifference that created it stays with us,” Tyson wrote in an email Tuesday. “We see generations of black children struggling against these barriers, and many dying from systemic racism that is just as deadly as a rope or a gun.”
For Gordon, the renewed attention on the Till case was a reminder of the social progress it helped spark.
“It helps younger generations identify how far we’ve come with the many civil rights and freedoms we’ve gained since Emmett’s death,” Gordon said. “As his mother would say, his death was not in vain.”
Breed reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Michael Goldberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikergoldberg.