Emmett Till's cousin: Accuser in case is still alive and must be brought to justice

I feel for families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. My activism continues in solidarity with those who lost loved ones to modern-day lynchings.

Deborah Watts
Opinion contributor

As the cousin of Emmett Till, I was disappointed by the Department of Justice decision last week to close the investigation into his death. In 1955, at the age of 14, while visiting family in Mississippi, Emmett was dragged out of bed, tortured and killed by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. They then dumped his body in a river. All of this over allegations that he flirted with a white woman. 

The white men who killed my cousin (and who later confessed) were acquitted. But my family strongly believes that others were involved in his death. And we had remained hopeful that the DOJ decision would have been different.

Many of us have known for some time that the information brought forward by author Timothy Tyson – who revealed in his book "The Blood of Emmett Till" that accuser Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted her story and admitted to lying about my cousin's actions – might be a challenge to prove.

And while the two perpetrators who were tried and acquitted are dead, Donham is still alive. The question that we have been asking is why Donham has not been held accountable for her participation in the kidnapping and killing of Emmett. We believe that she is one of many culpable in the final actions that led to his death.

Mamie Till Mobley and her son, Emmett, in Chicago.

The matter on our minds and what we hoped the DOJ would question was never about a confession or whether she recanted her lie. We never doubted that she lied during her court testimony in 1955.

Where do we go from here? 

Our family’s push for justice is not over.

We are grateful that there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping and murder in Mississippi. And our hope is that truth, justice and accountability will prevail. 

We also hope and pray that justice-seeking family members along with advocates and those organizations that have not tired of this 66-year-old case will continue to stand in solidarity with us.

We are focused on the state of Mississippi, where we have consistently appealed to state authorities. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and W. Dewayne Richardson, district attorney for the 4th Circuit Court District of Mississippi, can decide to ​move the case forward with appropriate charges of any living accomplices, including Donham.

When federal law enforcement opened this probe, we expected the investigators to dig deeper than Tyson’s book. We hoped that Donham’s memoir and the evidence presented by investigators previously would lead to a possible indictment. 

There was a federal investigation in 2004. In 2007, state efforts ended after a grand jury declined to indict anyone on state charges.

The statutory duties under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act require the DOJ to fully investigate and hold people accountable for their roles in racially motivated kidnappings and murders, yet the DOJ’s report did not address the culpability of the central figure in Emmett’s death – his accuser. 

Six decades after his killing, she is alive and well and has never had to fully testify before a jury in court. She has never faced cross examination. She has been allowed to live out her days, shielded from criminal accountability. 

We are not seeking vengeance. But as a promise to Emmett’s mother, we will continue to pursue all legal avenues to bring any living accomplice to justice. We will also make sure that the record is set straight about his character and that his death will not be in vain.

I wanted to share these sentiments from attorney Jaribu Hill, who represents some members of our family, that she posted last Monday on Facebook

"Today, we witnessed yet another travesty of justice. After 4 years of failing to conduct a transparent investigation into the undisputed culpability of Carolyn Bryant Donham, once again the case has been closed. It was Bryant Donham who identified Emmett and marked him for death. The brutal lynching haunts us now! Haunts us still. No, we do not accept today’s announcement from the DOJ. We know at the very least, a Grand Jury should have been convened to get answers from Bryant Donham. No justice! No peace!"

History keeps repeating itself

Lynchings such as Ahmaud Arbery's, Breonna Taylor's and George Floyd's are very much reflective of what happened to my cousin.

A ground mural depicts Breonna Taylor at in Annapolis, Md.

As we continue our advocacy in Emmett’s name, we also call on Congress to pass HR 55 the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, first introduced in 2019 as HR 35 but reintroduced by Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., earlier this year. This bill would specify lynching as a violation or deprivation of civil rights and make lynching a federal crime.

In Minnesota, my home state, we are also advocating for the passage of an act to empower victims of various constitutional civil rights violations with the Emmett Louis Till Victims Recovery Program.

My activism continues in solidarity with justice-seeking activists and families who have lost loved ones to modern-day lynchings.

We continue to see a through line from the past injustices in 1955 and the injustices that continue today. They are all reflective of the criminal, civil and human rights movements that place Black, brown and Indigenous bodies in the forefront of the struggle for justice and reform. 

We as a nation still haven't come to terms with the truth about our racist past. It is extremely difficult to advance toward any chance of reconciliation until we do. 

Deborah Watts is the cousin of Emmett Till, and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.