Clarence Page: Emmett Till’s story, despite new revelations, still needs the whole truth

Like a slowly unfolding detective story, the search for justice for Emmett Till keeps taking new and painful turns — and not always toward justice.

The latest comes from an unpublished memoir by the white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose accusations of improper advances in the store where she worked in Money, Mississippi, triggered the 1955 kidnapping and killing of Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was in town visiting relatives.

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In a scene all too common in the post-Reconstruction South, a group of white men came after dark and took Till away. His body, brutally beaten, was found days later in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton gin fan tied on his neck with barbed wire.

Two white men — Donham’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milan — were charged and later acquitted by an all-white jury after less than an hour of deliberations.

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Two years later, they would essentially confess in a Look magazine interview, but double jeopardy would not allow them to be tried again. They died as free men.

But, unlike the more than 4,700 other lynchings recorded by the NAACP before 1968, Till’s death stirred a historic outpouring of grief after his mother insisted that Emmett’s casket be left open, as she explained, so the world could see what had been done to her son.

After Chicago-based Jet magazine, the Chicago Defender and other Black publications ran the photos and story, thousands of mourners lined up around the block at the A.A. Rayner Funeral Home on the South Side to pay respects and force outrage. The historic casket would later find an appropriate resting place in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art and Culture in Washington.

But when the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s office for the northern district of Mississippi announced last week that the latest investigation was closed, it looked like another disappointing end to the long-running saga.

Still, the story would not die so abruptly. In June, Till’s family discovered an unserved arrest warrant on kidnapping charges for Donham.

And, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has obtained a copy of her unpublished memoir in which her claims contradict those she’d made in the past.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to make any substantive difference in the death investigation.

Veteran journalist Christopher Benson co-authored “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” with Till’s now-deceased mother Mamie Till-Mobley. He explained to me that in the 1950s, there was no statute of limitations on kidnapping, the charge in Donham’s warrant. Today there’s a two-year limit, which means the statute of limitations has long expired.

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“If they brought her in,” he told me in a telephone interview, “they would have to release her because they couldn’t charge her with anything. And that would be a sad and tragic note.”

Still, Benson was dismayed that Donham’s story “has evolved over the years” in ways that contradict well-known facts, beginning with “a statement she made to one of the defense lawyers at the time, which didn’t include all the things she said later in court.”

“So, based on all we have seen,” he said, “we have reason to believe that she’s been lying.”

More disturbing, Donham, now in her 80s, spins her story to claim she, too, is a victim in this story.

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“I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett,” she says, repeating her account that witnesses heavily dispute. “He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation. Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no! Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss (of) his life. I paid dearly with an altered life.”

Oh, poor you. What “price” did she pay? Her “altered life”?

“She’s no William Faulkner, I can tell you that,” said Benson.

I agree. But this is her story as she wants to see it. The rest of us need to hear the whole story. We need to hear the truth.

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Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune Editorial Board, blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/pagespage.

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cpage@chicagotribune.com

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