It took more than six decades for the lie that led to Emmett Till’s lynching to be exposed. Now, Till’s family is calling for his case to be reopened.
Till, 14, was abducted by two white men in 1955 after 21-year-old Carolyn Donham accused him of making sexual advances at her. Donham’s first husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, beat, shot and mutilated Till’s body. He was later found weighted down with a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River.
Milam and and Bryant stood trial for Till’s murder. During the trial, Donham claimed that Till made sexual advances and grabbed her hand. The suspects were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Just months later, the duo admitted to killing Till in a paid interview for Look magazine.
In January, The Blood of Emmett Till was published and revealed that Donham committed perjury.
In a 2008 interview for that book, by Timothy B. Tyson, Donham admitted that she lied about Till making advances and grabbing her.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she told Tyson.
Till was with his cousin, Wheeeler Parker, in 1955 when they encountered Donham. Parker told the AP that Till did “for sure” whistle at 21-year-old Donham, but he never grabbed or threatened her.
Deborah Watts, also Till’s cousin, said she believes new information could be found if the case is reopened. “We know that she has admitted that she lied, and we know that is part of the reason Emmett is no longer with us,” Watts told the AP. “If there is any chance to reopen the case, I hope they will take this opportunity to do it now.”
During the trial, Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright, said that he saw two men hold the 14-year-old at gunpoint and take him to a third person inside a parked car. Milam and Bryant, now dead, were the only two charged for the murder. Watts said that reopening the investigation could identify the third person.
“However that information is acquired, it’s necessary,” she said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Carolyn Donham was married to Roy Bryant, not J.W. Milam.