Following Carolyn Bryant Donham’s Death, Revisit Emmett Till’s Life, Murder and Legacy

Emmett Till is depicted in this stylized still from the 'Un(re)solved' interactive, in which users learn about people whose lives were lost to violence — and in many cases, racist violence — during the civil rights era.

Emmett Till is depicted in this stylized still from the 'Un(re)solved' interactive, in which users learn about people whose lives were lost to violence — and in many cases, racist violence — during the civil rights era.

April 28, 2023

On August 28, 1955, a Black child from Chicago, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered while visiting relatives in rural Mississippi, after being accused of flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.

Images of the 14-year-old’s bloated, mutilated body helped galvanize the civil rights movement after Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral: “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told the funeral director.

Who Till’s killers were — including Bryant’s husband, Roy — was an open secret, but none were found guilty of the crime.

Carolyn Bryant Donham (she later remarried) died this week at age 88 without any formal charges in the events surrounding Till’s lynching. (In 2022, a team including members of Till’s family said it discovered an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for her.)

In the wake of Bryant’s death, revisit Emmett Till’s life and his family’s quest for justice.

“I am remembering a promise that I made that his death would not be in vain and that’s a living, breathing, legacy and a continuum towards justice for us and for other families too,” Till’s cousin Deborah Watts said in a StoryCorps interview published in 2021 as part of the Un(re)solved interactive.

In that interview, Watts, who co-founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, spoke with another cousin of Till’s, Tiye Rahmah, about Till’s life.

Screen Shot 2023-04-28 at 2.24.07 PM

“Emmett was an independent person,” Watts said. “He would shop for his mom, cook, clean, you know, when she was out working. He, just, was a great companion. And he had a lot of swag, if you will. He loved to make sure he looked his best, and he just, sort of, had this twinkle in his eye … for life.”  

Watts told host and reporter James Edwards in the first episode of the Un(re)solved podcast, released in June 2021, that Till’s mother was heartbroken over his murder and the lack of any consequences for his killers. Watts also discussed the family’s ongoing quest for justice and their evolving feelings about the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, a federal effort to reckon with racist killings that had gone unsolved or unpunished. 

“There was definitely a lot of hope,” Watts said of when the act became law in 2008. “You know, we’re thinking the feds get involved, Department of Justice involved. They have the resources to make something happen … .”

Years later, that hope had dimmed.

“So for us, with Emmett’s name being assigned and attached to it, it doesn’t sit well, you know, with us,” Watts told Edwards. “Because we want to make sure that there is justice and that they are doing what they said they were going to do.”

Learn about Till’s life, his legacy and the limitations of the act that bears his name in Un(re)solved. Through an interactive, an augmented-reality installation, a podcast, a curriculum and more, the collaborative, multiplatform investigation shines light on the stories of every person on the list of names associated with the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, including Till himself.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE



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