The 1955 brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till in Money, Mississippi was one of the major events that energized the nation’s Civil Rights Movement that put an end to legalized segregation.
Even today, the legacy of Till’s tragic death remains a driving force in the call for justice across the nation in the face of a growing number of inexplicable Black deaths at the hands of police and freelance murderers.
Last Saturday’s Rally for Justice for Emmett Till in Jackson was a continuing reminder of how very much alive the 67-year-old case is in the collective memory of people born generations after the murder itself. And those people are motivated to pursue justice in memory of the young Till.
The day before the rally, on March 11, Till family members and supporters presented petitions with over 300,000 signatures to the governor, the U.S. attorney, and the attorney general. They claim there are enough witnesses and new evidence to merit a further investigation and trial.
Laura Williams, a cousin and goddaughter of Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother who died Jan. 6, 2003 in their hometown of Chicago, said she had daily conversations with her and made a sacred promise to the long-grieving parent.
“Prior to her passing,” Williams said, “Mamie told me, ‘Laura, never let the fact be forgotten that I go all around the world letting people know that my son didn’t commit this crime. He had a lisp and she (Carolyn Bryant) probably thought he was whistling, because he had a stutter.’ She said, ‘I want you to spend the rest of your life looking out for Emmett.’
“We aren’t going to sit on our laurels. We know there are people still alive who can testify. We sent them the information. They still say it’s not enough evidence.
“We need you to join in with us,” she told Saturday’s rally in Jackson’s Smith Park. “Do you hear me, please? We’re never going to let it die.”
At the center of the call for a further investigation and trial is Carolyn Bryant Donham, 88, the woman who accused Till of whistling at her and touching her in an aggressively sexual manner. She is the former wife of Roy Bryant, one of Till’s two self-confessed killers exonerated by an all-white jury in a racially segregated Tallahatchie County, Mississippi court in September 1955.
Timothy Tyson, the author chosen by Carolyn Bryant Donham to tell her story, said in his 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” that Bryant Donham told him in a 2008 interview that her accusation against Till was false. But when the national media sought confirmation, she denied having said this. Tyson admitted that he had not recorded this “confession” during the 2008 interview but had written her statement down at the time.
Former Hollandale municipal judge and current executive director of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights, Jaribu Hill, urged that the woman at the center of the Emmett Till murder be brought to trial.
“We want Carolyn Bryant Donham to be brought to justice,” Hill said. “We want her to be held accountable for the role that she played, because but for Carolyn Donham, Emmett would be alive, or he would be a very old man.”
“Emmett Till was lynched,” she said. “He was lynched in the 20th Century. And in the 21st Century, the lynching still goes unpunished.”
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, whose 2005 documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” led to a new investigation of the murder, still insists that the Till case is far from being over.
“We need your support,” Beauchamp said. “The family needs your support. Mother Mobley would be tickled pink to see everybody out here fighting for justice for Emmett.
“I know we’re still on this high of the anti-lynching bill being passed, but one thing we must understand is that we’re far from the courtroom and far from stopping the injustices that we continue to see today.”
Till’s cousin Priscilla Sterling named her son Emmett after the fallen hero of the family.
“I’m asking the Justice Department for an unredacted FBI report,” said Sterling. “It’s time; it’s been long overdue. It is possible that we can get justice, and we want the authorities to hear our demand. It’s pretty simple. Charge Carolyn Bryant Donham as an accomplice in the kidnapping and murder of Emmitt Louis Till. She is alive; this is not about hate or vengeance. This is about justice.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Melissa Earnest, a white mother of four, as a child lived along the Tallahatchie River only three miles from the shed where Till had been beaten before being tossed into the river.
“We should not be here right now,” Earnest said. “And I am disgusted and appalled that Emmett’s family is still having to beg for justice 67 years later. Carolyn Bryant Donham not being indicted for her role in Emmett Till’s kidnapping and murder is teaching people who look like me that it is okay to go out hurt people and murder people who do not look like me. And that is not okay.
“I’m calling on our governor, our attorney general, and our district attorney to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham for her part in the Emmett Louis Till murder and kidnapping,” she said.
Rally co-host Steven Harris, founder-chairman of the 2nd Chance Mississippi Initiative project and a voice for what he called the New Civil Rights Generation, read statements of support from several key members of Congress and movement activists.
“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” Harris read from the letter sent by Congressman Bennie Thompson.
State representatives De’Keither Stamps of Jackson, Omeria Scott of Laurel, and Rickey Thompson of Lee County were in attendance and spoke out in support of the call for justice for Till and other victims of injustice.
Former Mississippi death row inmate Curtis Flowers, now living in Alabama, also wired his support.
Cold Case Justice Initiative co-founder Paula Johnson of Syracuse University Law School focused on the indictment of Bryant Donham in her letter to the rally.
“Indict Carolyn Bryant,” she said. “Indict Carolyn Bryant and all others who took Emmett’s beautiful life. The Cold Case Justice Initiative stands with the family and all those who love and remember Emmett and Mamie Till Mobley. In their name, we demand justice, finally justice. We will not rest till it comes.”
Lee County NAACP President Charles Moore paid tribute to his father, who had taught his children the rules of the institutionalized racism that prevailed in rural Mississippi.
“I’m here because of my father,” Moore said. “Many of us suffer from an internalized racism. We refuse to fight for ourselves in the eyes of people that look different from us. In fact, we’d as soon kill somebody who looked like us rather than defend somebody who looks like us. We’re in a time of transitioning. We’re in a place of shifting, so that that will be no more.
“Life itself is what you choose it to be. Emmett was a young man waiting to bud and to express his life. We’re seeking justice for Emmett, and we demand that the warrant be served.”
Lenray Gandy was born five months before Till was murdered. Growing up in his hometown of Meridian, Gandy knew two of the Chaney, Schwerner, Goodman civil rights trio of martyrs of 1964. His older sister was a classmate of James Chaney, and he had many conversations with Michael Schwerner.
The Emmett Till lynching happened less than a century after the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, Gandy said.
“Mississippi was a police state, a state that was run by a racist governor,” he said. “And they were empowered by a White Citizens Council and the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which consisted of racist politicians, judges, lawyers, law enforcement, local militias, the KKK, and all others who hated us because of our skin.”
Growing up on the same street that had been the scene of a deadly racial conflict in 1876 where one white northerner and 30 Black activists of the time were killed, Gandy said he had a constant reminder of a higher purpose in life than mere self-preservation.
“I was blessed enough to have met a courageous hero back then,” he said. “He was the first field secretary of the NAACP – Mr. Medgar Evers. Mr. Evers used to come to our shop all the time and while using the phone there, he would urge people to get into the Movement. To get out and vote. And to get out and fight for freedom. He would encourage us young people as well, to join the youth branch of the NAACP. He was a courageous man. And then in ‘63, he was lynched.”
Gandy said he modeled his life on the example and courage of Evers and the civil rights workers of his younger days.
The documented beating death of Ronald Greene by the Louisiana State Police near Monroe in 2019 is one of the most outrageous cases of police brutality and lynching in the past century, says Belinda Parker Brown, CEO of the organization Louisiana United International, Inc./United for Justice. Based in New Orleans, she represents the effort of many Louisiana human rights activists in the quest for justice for Ronald Greene, a 49-year-old Black man beaten and tortured to death by Louisiana State Police.
“This young man was beaten to death by the police,” she said. “And it was recorded. And they were bragging about how they had beat the ever-living stuffing out of him.
“I was motivated to support the Emmett Till rally due to what happened 67 years ago,” Brown said in a telephone interview Monday evening. “But they were still doing the same exact thing as late as May of 2019. This man was beaten to death on video, and it was covered up for two years by the governor on down. They concealed it. And the governor was complicit in covering it up. He was running for re-election. The video was leaked in 2021, two years later. And had not the video been leaked by a whistleblower, who was a police officer, we wouldn’t know to this day what actually happened because they lied and said the man had died from a car crash.”
The 46-minute-long video showed that Greene was shot a number of times with stun guns, punched, and placed in a chokehold, all the while pleading for his life and calling on the humanity of his assailants.
The original police report said Greene died as the result of an auto crash, according to CNN. But in the video, one of the cops seen approaching Greene’s car with his weapon drawn was saying, “Let me see your f**king hands m*therf**ker”.
One of the officers charged in the homicide died on September 22, 2020 in an auto crash, the Associated Press reported.
“I’m a community organizer,” Brown says. “And I’ve been doing this work for over 40 years. We’re in the 21st Century and we’re still dealing with some of the same stuff that we dealt with a hundred years ago that our people suffered and died for.
“Louisiana was number one in corruption in 2015. And Mississippi was number one in corruption in the years when Louisiana was number two. They’re neighbors, and we’re fed up.
“We’re not asking permission anymore. Everybody knows about what’s going on, everybody’s talking about what’s going on, but nobody is doing anything to stop this type of tyranny when it comes to organized legal abuse and our government not protecting us from this.
“It’s time for us to take the responsibility and stop the coverup. We’re controlling this narrative, and that’s why we’re saying that justice for Emmett Till is a necessity. We’ve waited too long and we’re not waiting anymore.”
The FBI has taken up the investigation, Brown says. And indictments against the state police are expected sometime in March.
Brown says she hopes to play a substantial role in broadcasting the truth of Ronald Greene’s murder in hookups with national radio networks, podcasts, and other social media.
Co-host Harris told of two near-death experiences he and his twin brother, Jessie, faced in police encounters in their hometown of West Point.
At age 17, Harris was assaulted by a cop. He gave as good as he got, he said. And he went to prison for the exchange.
In later years, his brother, Jessie, was held in jail for 11 years without any charges being brought against him, he said.
“Our father, who was a civil rights activist, was assassinated,” Harris said. “My brother arrived home and got some guns and tried to find the people who did it. Pandemonium erupted on the 911 channel. Then a whole army of police showed up from everywhere and there was a shootout, and four policemen got shot. But my brother lived.
“We are twins, and our story was shared all over the world,” Harris said while standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother. “We lived to tell the story. And all charges have been dropped. We’re both survivors and we stand in solidarity with the family of Emmett Till.”
Armed security was visible throughout the three hours of sometimes bitterly cold wind and temperature in Smith Park that stands across the street behind the Governor’s Mansion at West and Amite.
“You can never underestimate anybody,” said Yolanda Shelton of West Point, Minister of Information for the Southern Region of the New Black Panther Party. “We just want everybody to be safe.
“We’re here as the vanguard of the people and also to protect the family and to bring awareness to the community that it’s time to come together as one.
“Emmett Till’s family wants justice, and we’re here standing in solidarity with the family,” Shelton said. “I want to be one of the people on the front line if something like this happens to another family.”