The death of Emmett Till’s accuser doesn’t bring closure or justice for Black Americans

How can we lead the way forward, when we are still reeling from the horrors of the past?

Emmett Till
Emmett Till. Associated Press
Emmett Till
Emmett Till. Associated Press

The death of Emmett Till’s accuser doesn’t bring closure or justice for Black Americans

How can we lead the way forward, when we are still reeling from the horrors of the past?

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Carolyn Bryant Donham’s death does not bring justice to the family or memory of Emmett Till. In fact, her death retraumatizes Black America.

The white woman who accused 14-year-old Till of whistling at her in Mississippi in 1955 — an accusation that led to his torture and death at the hands of her husband and others — died in hospice care at the age of 88 last week.

Donham admitted falsifying the story about him but a grand jury failed to indict her. With her death, we now know that nobody will be held accountable for her role in Till’s lynching.

Her death is not an ending but the latest chapter in the tragic story of Till.

For Black Americans it is a retraumatization. Every anniversary, court filing, film or “new revelation” in the case terrorizes us over and over again.

For Black people born in the years and decades following Till’s murder, seeing the photo of his mangled face for the first time was almost a rite of passage.

We can vividly recount where we were, what we were doing, who we were with — and how we felt.

I remember the first time I saw the photo of Till’s mutilated face.

I was 10 years old and at the hairdresser on a summer Saturday afternoon with my mother and older sisters in the Bronx.

I came prepared with a small tote filled with books (The Baby-Sitters Club and Judy Blume) and paper and pencils for drawing. Piles of old magazines at the reception area also helped keep me entertained during those long days. As I sorted through back issues of Vogue and Ebony magazines, my sister said, “Cianna look at this!” She held up Jet magazine.

There, in black and white, was the infamous photo.

It took me a few seconds to focus on the image before I could make out the disfigured face. It took more seconds to realize that the bloated face on the right was the same bright-eyed boy on the left.

My stomach churned with fear and anxiety. What was that? Why was my sister showing me this terrible photo? What happened to that 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting family in Mississippi?

She told me white people did that to him because he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955.

The Black-owned Jet magazine first ran the photo after his death at the request of his mother Mamie Till, who wanted the world to see the brutality. Till became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement. Decades later, Jet still ran that photo so generations of young people — like me under a hair dryer at a salon — would know.

I wasn’t afraid of the mutilated face. It was the gruesome details of his murder, kidnapping and the 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck that conjured up a fear in me that I had never experienced before.

It was the fact that someone did this to a child not much older than me and got away with it.

It was that nobody — not his parents, his uncle, the police — was able to protect Emmett.

Harrowing as it was, my experience was not unique.

To this day, his name carries an almost unbearable weight of memory. It is a collective memory and trauma that continues to affect those many generations and miles removed from the horrors of the Jim Crow South.

Ollie Gordon, Till’s cousin who was living with his family in Chicago at the time of his abduction and murder, told The Associated Press that even though Donham was never tried in the court of man, “… I think she was judged by God, his wrath is more punitive than any judgment or penalty she could have gotten in a courtroom.”

Denied due process and protection under the law, the Till family, like so many other families of racial and ethnic violence, must find succor in cosmic vengeance in the absence of justice.

Donham had cancer and I know attempting a trial or prison sentence at this stage would be futile. But when I heard that she died, I was so angry.

I cried and I screamed.

I was grief stricken and frightened all over again. And it was the same for my sisters, my partner and my friends.

I noticed the day she died, April 25.

In my job as a producer at WBEZ, I’m sent hundreds of story pitches and press releases every day.

Throughout April I noticed many of the stories flooding my inbox were for events marking grim anniversaries of racial and ethnic violence.

The anniversary of the Armenian Genocide that saw 1.5 million killed.

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to war-ravaged Northern Ireland.

This year Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, fell on the 17th and 18th day of April. So many of us carry the emotional and psychological wounds of racial and ethnic violence.

And in the coverage of these grim anniversaries from the last century, one question kept coming up: What about the next generation?

The traumatizing deaths of Trayvon Martin, who was stalked and killed while walking home Florida; Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police in her home in Kentucky during a no-knock raid; and George Floyd, whose violent lynching at the hands of Minneapolis police was recorded and beamed around the world.

The stories and images of these violent deaths will fuel the nightmares of future generations.

I honestly have no answers to how we shepherd them into a brighter future. I don’t know how we teach them to process grief and shake off the shackles of intergenerational trauma.

How can we lead the way forward when we are still reeling from the horrors of the past?