ATLANTA – The murder case of Emmett Till – one of the most infamous slayings of the civil rights era – appears to be drawing to a fruitless close 52 years after the black teenager whistled at a white woman, then turned up dead in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River.
It was disclosed Tuesday that a grand jury in Leflore County, Miss., has declined to bring a manslaughter indictment against Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white shopkeeper who witnesses say Till had admired one August afternoon in the rural community of Money, Miss.
Donham, 73, was suspected of pointing out Till to her then-husband, Roy Bryant. He and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were originally charged with killing the 14-year-old, but they were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955 after a little more than an hour of deliberation. A year later they admitted in a magazine interview that they had killed Till.
Till’s family has watched with hope in recent years as a parade of old and often recalcitrant Southerners have been dragged into court and found guilty of heinous crimes against blacks. But on Tuesday, it felt like a door briefly open to the past – and, potentially, to justice – had been shut for good.
“This was our last hope – and it was dashed today,” said Simeon Wright, 64, Till’s cousin, who was with him at the grocery store and heard him whistle at Donham. “The Emmett Till case started with one person, and that person is still alive. She played a role in identifying Emmett, she participated in his kidnapping and now she is getting away with murder.”
Donham could not be reached for comment Tuesday. She has long maintained her innocence to the FBI, and chances of fresh charges, although possible, now appear slim.
The Till case horrified and galvanized civil rights activists at the time, and it reminded the public of the ongoing bloody suppression of blacks in the South – even as the old order of segregation and intimidation had begun to crumble.
The slaying took place just a year after the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education ruling and just months before Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress, was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
In August 1955, Till, a Chicagoan, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he entered Roy Bryant’s grocery store to purchase bubblegum. Inside, he was alone with the shopkeeper’s young wife, Carolyn, who later alleged that the boy had spoken lewdly to her. When she stepped out onto the porch, his cousins heard him whistle.
Three days later, Roy Bryant and Milam allegedly forced their way into Till’s grand-uncle’s house in the middle of the night and snatched Till from his bed. His body was later found by a fisherman in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton gin fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire.