Carolyn Bryant vs Emmett Till, A Life Ruined vs A Life Taken

Left, a young Emmett Till; Right, Carolyn Bryant with her two sons Roy Jr. and Lamar at Till’s murder trial at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in Mississippi, September 1955. Left, from Bettmann, right, by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection, both from Getty Images

We live in this life, fearful – of going to hell, hopeful of going to heaven, confused and often compelled, because of these fears, to try and do the right thing.

Yet, it’s difficult to process why any of us would be so afraid of ending up in that place often referred to as hell, when there are people like Carolyn Bryant, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, all who shared equally in the murder of Emmett Till and hundreds, if not thousands, of young (and old men alike) men like him. Surely, most of us are going to end up in the good place based on how we have lived our lives, as there is no way a person like the aforementioned will have a seat next to us. If they do, then, this whole “after life” thing has been one big lie. They all had the joy and satisfaction of enjoying the thrill of institutional racism and white privilege at its zenith, mostly in the South, but all over these United States and even the world in many respects.

Okay, unless you have capsulized this life-changing story – either from your circumspect study of the history of this horrific, inhuman act of hatred, or your delicate interest in this article – the story is: 

that, on August 19, 1955—the day before Emmett Till left with his uncle and cousin for Mississippi—Mamie Till gave her son his late father’s signet ring, engraved with the initials “L.T.” The next day she drove her son to the 63rd Street station in Chicago. They kissed goodbye, and Till boarded a southbound train headed for Mississippi. It was the last time they ever saw each other.

Three days after arriving in Money, Mississippi—on August 24, 1955—Emmett Till and a group of teenagers entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market to buy refreshments after a long day picking cotton in the hot afternoon sun. What exactly transpired inside the grocery store that afternoon will never be known. Till purchased bubble gum, and in later accounts he was accused of either whistling at, flirting with or touching the hand of the store’s white female clerk—and wife of the owner—Carolyn Bryant.

Four days later, at approximately 2:30 a.m. on August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till from Moses Wright’s home. They then beat the teenager brutally, dragged him to the bank of the Tallahatchie River, shot him in the head, tied him with barbed wire to a large metal fan and shoved his mutilated body into the water. Moses Wright reported Till’s disappearance to the local authorities, and three days later, his corpse was pulled out of the river.  Till’s face was mutilated beyond recognition, and Wright only managed to positively identify him by the ring on his finger, engraved with his father’s initials—”L.T.”

Now Carolyn Bryant is 82 years old, in the “throes” of death, having lived a wonderful life, I am sure. Now she admits she lied about some of statements, but most astonishing of all, she didn’t repent for her part in the death of this young man.

On the witness stand, Carolyn Bryant, the 21 year old wife of Roy Bryant,  had asserted that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her. She said that while she was unable to utter the “unprintable” word he had used (as one of the defense lawyers put it), “he said [he had]’”—done something – “with white women before.’” Then she added, “I was just scared to death.”  Emmett Till would be later murdered by two white men, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant—the country-store owner.  Later she confessed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. “That part’s not true,” she told Timothy Tyson, a Duke University senior research scholar and author of the new book,  The Blood of Emmett Till (Simon & Schuster),   about her claim that Till had made verbal and physical advances on her.  Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

“That case went a long way toward ruining her life,” Tyson contends, explaining that she could never escape its notoriety.  While this an observational assessment made by the author, and I can appreciate his framing the entire episode in such a way so as to highlight the pain experienced (mainly) by both families, on both sides of this horrible tragedy, A life ruined vs a life taken is not quite my idea of how and why my empathy should be shared equally between Carolyn Bryant, Emmett Till and Emmett Till family.

This story is very haunting to me because at the time this happened (August 1955), I was five years old the day Emmett Till’s body was found, and pulled from the Tallahatchie River, was August 31, 1955.  I was five years old; nine days shy of my sixth birthday.  I had already been in school a year now, as back then, you could start school at five if your sixth anniversary of your birthday was on or before December of that year.

I remember sitting on the porch as I listened to my mother and several other ladies were talking and I heard my mother say “they pulled that poor boys body from the river this morning.”  Bear in mind I was barely six years old, and even growing up in Mississippi and with all of the ills of racism and Jim Crow so ubiquitous at the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of the incident then.  It’s hard for some to believe, especially if you didn’t grow up in the segregated Deep South, but black parents did a really good job of insulating their children from becoming a similar statistic as Emmett Till.  They did so then, as many do now, by having conversations with them about how we “deported” ourselves.  They talked then, as they do now, about how to respond when confronted with angry white men and the need to be extra careful about our interactions with white women.  They knew that even a casual association with white girls and women could cause us great harm, if only due to mere casual acquaintance, or the expected (Southern) gentlemanly courtesies children were expected to display to all adults, white and black.

So, pardon me if I share the same empathy for Carolyn Bryant, and the hell she faces for being a willing co-conspirator – and I don’t use the word lightly – in the death of this innocent young man.  He was eight years older than me, but he and I were in the same general age group.  The number of black men, and children, during the reign of terror by (the) Jim Crow Southern terrorists will never be fully counted, or accounted for.  The number of white women who either through sheer hatred or fear, or both, who knowingly helped to murder black men, then and now, is incomprehensible and unforgivable.

Emmett Till’s mother and family, like so many hundreds of other black mothers and families have this (sort of) hell they will have to live in, and through, for the rest of their lives.  Those of us who were close to these types of atrocities, both in physical geography and time, will also have this (sort of) hell we will have to live with.

While Carolyn Bryant has a (sort of) hell she’s living through, at least, and unlike Emmett Till, she still lives.