No charges to be filed in 1955 killing

Times Staff Writers

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., had declined to bring a manslaughter indictment against Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white shopkeeper who witnesses said 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 charged in the killing of the 14-year-old but were acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955 after a little more than an hour of deliberations. 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 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, who is thought to be a resident of Greenwood, Miss., could not be reached for comment. She has long maintained her innocence to the FBI, and chances of new charges, although possible, appear slim.

The Till case horrified and galvanized civil rights activists and reminded the public of the bloody suppression of blacks in the South -- even as the old order of segregation and intimidation had begun to crumble.

The slaying took place a year after the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and months before Rosa Parks, a 43-year-old seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.

In August 1955, Till, who was from Chicago, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he entered Bryant’s grocery store to purchase bubble gum. 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, 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 found by fisherman in the Tallahatchie River, with a cotton gin fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire.

In 1956, in an interview with Look magazine, Bryant and Milam admitted they had repeatedly beaten Till before shooting him and tossing his body in the river.

Milam died in 1980, Bryant in 1990. No one else was indicted.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who died in 2003, held an open-casket funeral for her son in Chicago. Thousands came to see his mutilated remains, and a photo of Till’s disfigured face was printed in Jet magazine and seen around the world.

His fate became legend, recounted in songs by Bob Dylan and Kanye West and explored in plays by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. In recent years, a highway in Mississippi and a school in Chicago have been named in Till’s honor.

The Justice Department reopened an investigation into Till’s death in 2004, after a documentary filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp, shared footage from his film, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Beauchamp claimed as many as 14 people, some still living, were involved in Till’s slaying.

But in 2006 the department decided not to bring charges, arguing that the five-year statute of limitation on federal civil rights violations had expired. The department turned its 8,000-page report over to prosecutors in Mississippi, recommending that they investigate Donham.

Some witnesses said a woman’s voice was heard during Till’s abduction.

Joyce Chiles, the district attorney in Leflore County, could not be reached for comment. In the past, she acknowledged that the case would be difficult to prosecute.

Aaron Condon, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Mississippi, said he was not surprised by the grand jury’s rejection of the case.

“It’s an extremely old case, and the evidence against Carolyn Bryant, from what I’ve understood, is extremely weak,” he said. “The main people who would have been in a position to identify her are dead.”

The renewed interest in Till’s killing comes after a string of successful convictions in Southern civil rights-era slayings.

In 1994, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted in Mississippi of the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In 2002, Thomas Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were convicted in Alabama in the 1963 murder of four black girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted in Mississippi in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.

Last month, the Justice Department brought kidnapping and conspiracy charges against James Ford Seale, 71, in the 1964 abductions and slayings of Charles Eddie Moore and Henry Hezekiah Dee. A trial is scheduled for April.

The grand jury’s decision not to bring an indictment in the Till case was made Friday but became public Tuesday -- the same day the Justice Department held a news conference in Washington to announce that it had reopened investigations into about a dozen unsolved civil rights-era slayings.

“Much time has passed on these crimes,” Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales told reporters. “The wounds they left are deep, and many of them still have not healed.... To those individuals who committed these crimes, and who have lived with their guilty consciences for these many years, our message should be clear: You have not gotten away with anything. We are still on your trail.”

With the trail in the Till case as cold as ever, some of his family members say they would prefer truth more than payback.

Marvel Parker, 60, of Summit, Ill., is the wife of Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s who was with him at the Mississippi store. He is now hospitalized after a stroke.

His wife said they would prefer to see Carolyn Bryant Donham receive immunity in exchange for telling her story.

“Mrs. Bryant is still alive, and her husband admitted that he did it,” Marvel Parker said. “We don’t want her to go to jail.... But you don’t have to be a Rhodes scholar to know that she knows something.”