Emmett Till, 14, was tortured to death on an August night in 1955 in a sweltering farm shed in Mississippi. His cries and moans went on for hours, heard by the nearby farmers. We know who bludgeoned him to death, since J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to committing the crime in the story they sold for $4,000 to Look magazine.
But no one was ever punished.
Today, hiding in plain sight is the last living person who could be held accountable: Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman whose story about Till’s confronting her while she was tending to her store alone at night triggered the monstrous extrajudicial response of her husband and other relatives, lives in North Carolina.
It can seem like the time for incarcerating her has passed. But justice demands accountability in whatever time is left.
The revelation this summer of a 1955 warrant for her arrest gave hope to Till’s family that justice might finally be served. But an aide to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch last month boldly said there was no new evidence to justify her arrest, and it was announced Tuesday that a grand jury had declined to indict her.
In the years following Till’s death, Donham married twice, took classes at Delta State University and made jewelry that she sold at arts and crafts shows. She popped up on Facebook under an assumed name, tended to her dogs and lived a life devoid of one notable thing: punishment.
But the debate about whether or not the facts compel her indictment is actually the sideshow; on the main stage is a much harder question: What does it say about us — not her — that she has escaped justice?
At the time of Till’s death, the Leflore County, Mississippi, sheriff told reporters he did not want to “bother” Donham because she had two young children to care for. Today, she’s in her late 80s, and it can seem like the time for incarcerating her has passed.
But justice demands accountability in whatever time is left. This principle has guided America’s policy in extraditing elderly Holocaust perpetrators back to Europe in the belief that they must pay for their crimes however possible — that if the only punishment left to be meted out is the denial of freedom in old age, than that’s the sentence that must be delivered.
There is a division within the Department of Justice set up to root out in the U.S. participants at any level in the European Holocaust for prosecution. I am intimate with this work: I ran a division at the Justice Department that supported it and pushed for legislation for compensation for Holocaust victims. And that work inspired me to commit to bring similar focus and energy to analogous cases of civil rights murder, including volunteering to help members of the Till family and their supporters draw attention to the history.
In one example of the prosecutions of Nazis, America extracted a 95-year-old from his home and medevaced him to Germany for lying on his immigration form when he entered the U.S. There was no bureaucratic concern about statutes of limitations on perjury; there was no plea for compassion because of the reach of time, frailty or the possible pressure that these young people endured by Nazi commanders.
I’m proud of this work. The Justice Department’s long-term effort to root out those who supported Germany’s state genocide is among America’s strongest examples of its defense of human and civil rights. And the principle behind it is not retribution but an aspect of declaring “never again”: the forward-looking value that teaches people that this evil, even when carried out by the foot soldiers, cannot be pardoned or explained away.
We are not applying this same effort to punishing the white women who played a crucial role in sending Black men to their deaths, however. Donham set in motion the events that led to Till’s ghastly demise. Donham told the court that “this n—– man” had grabbed her hand at the cash register and said, “How about a date, baby?” She testified that she turned around and that Till then, from behind, put his left hand on her waist and his right arm on her hip and said, “What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?” and uttered a vulgarity.
But she later said that never happened. Till’s cousins, also teens and present at the time, said that at most he whistled at her, and even that is disputed by others at the scene. Her husband and brother-in-law were acquitted by the jury of their peers after just over an hour of deliberation. Donham did not even have to face that trifling consequence.
Yet she is as responsible as her husband and kin who bludgeoned the boy to death. Our prisons are filled with Black men (and women) who participated in far less depraved crimes, but we do not have a culture that protects them. To find Donham guilty, though, would mean admitting a terrible flaw in our own culture.
After public pressure, in 2006 a local prosecutor in Leflore County, Mississippi, had a grand jury consider bringing manslaughter charges against her at the conclusion of an FBI investigation that had led nowhere. The grand jury found insufficient evidence, however, so there were no charges.
After the author Tim Tyson revealed in his 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till” that Donham had recanted her testimony, Attorney General Jeff Sessions had the Justice Department reopen the matter to see whether there was any way the federal government could intervene. That, too, fizzled. And this week, again, it was the same story.
To be clear, this is not a failure of will of the prosecutors. This is a cultural failure.
In 2018 Sessions praised the work of the Justice Department’s best-known Nazi hunter, Eli Rosenbaum, and his team for successfully removing the 68th Nazi from the U.S. The passage of time did not deter the department from fulfilling its moral imperative of seeking justice for the victims of the Holocaust.
Yet in 2022, in the case of Emmett Till, we hear the silence and our own nation’s complicity. In Western Europe, the mechanisms of the state, civil society and culture are conducting an inquiry into the past and its key perpetrators. In the U.S., we are not owning up to these chronic monstrosities nor holding enough among us accountable.
Robert Raben is the president and founder of the Raben Group, a national public policy and strategic communications firm that works in part to reform our criminal justice system. He previously served as assistant attorney general under President Bill Clinton. He also served as counsel to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and Democratic counsel for two subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee, first on the Constitution and then on the courts and intellectual property.
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