For the past week or so I’ve been grappling with the news that the woman who claimed Emmett Till flirted with her in 1955 was lying. If you aren’t familiar with the Emmett Till story, this is the short version:
Till, 14, an African-American boy from Chicago, was visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he reportedly spoke to/whistled at/flirted with a white woman at a store. The woman’s husband and brother-in-law pulled Till from the home where he was staying and brutally killed him before sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck. Despite the fact that the killers were well-known and stupidly loudmouthed about their actions, they were never found guilty. Basically, the good people of Mississippi decided Till’s life wasn’t worth justice. The good people of America concurred, because this particular crime was widely investigated by the FBI and, despite an actual confession to a reporter for Look magazine, the two men remained free until their deaths.
Of all the people involved in this story, only the woman who claimed Till spoke to her is still alive. Carolyn Bryant Donhom granted a rare interview to Timothy Tyson (no relation), the historian whose most recent book is The Blood of Emmett Till. Donhom, all these many years later, admitted to Tyson that she lied. Emmett Till never spoke to her in a manner she might consider inappropriate. He certainly never grabbed her or used profane language. It’s not clear why she lied, except as a cover for her husband’s brutality. When I first read about this in the New York Times (Woman Linked to 1955 Emmett Till Murder Tells Historian She Lied), I felt mostly numb. This story is a heavy part of Mississippi history, an early tragedy in an era that includes the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963 and the lynching of three civil rights workers in 1964. I lived and worked in the area where Emmett Till was killed. Even in 1990, some 35 years after the fact, his death felt like an undertow in the Mississippi Delta. People might not talk about it every day, but it was there beneath the surface and it tugged at us and worked to pull us off our feet. So why didn’t the news of this woman’s confessed lie affect me more?
I think it’s because it didn’t surprise me. Look, it never mattered whether Emmett Till spoke to that woman or whistled at her or made a lewd comment or even grabbed her hand. None of that could excuse the terrible things done to Till. He didn’t deserve to be beaten, mutilated, shot, and dumped in a river. That the murder was set forth with a lie from one pitiful woman doesn’t change the horrific truth of what happened.
That said, the fact of the lie matters. Every day I wake up to reports about “alternative facts,” fake news stories, and outright lies being spread by people in power. Press Secretary Sean Spicer and counselor/mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway seem all too comfortable saying things that clearly are not true. They seem unaware that their lies might have real and tragic consequences, the sort of consequences that might echo for more than 60 years. When Conway is 90, will we get her end-of-life confession and expression of regret? Will Spicer ever come to understand that spreading lies for another person doesn’t absolve him from the consequences? And of course there is the larger issue of the two men who manufacture the lies for their own benefit and their own egos. Our president and his white nationalist chief advisor are the killers in this analogy. They are the men who do whatever brutal thing they want to do without fear of justice, because they have the liars on the payroll and because they know that too many Americans don’t care about the truth.
It doesn’t stop there. The men and women who made money by creating and spreading click-bait fake news over the past year or so are culpable as well. I’ve seen interviews with some of these people who mostly seem amused at how gullible and eager certain Americans were for a narrative that said what they wanted to hear. I hope they live with the guilt and shame of what they’ve done for the rest of their sorry lives. As for the rest of us—the gawkers, the apathetic masses, the willfully ignorant—we’re the real villains here. We’re the jury who’d rather not serve. We have taken the word of untrustworthy people and used it to persecute the innocent, to whip up a frenzy of hatred toward people based on the color of their skin and the religion they practice, to pit neighbor against neighbor. We’ll all have to live with that shameful legacy.
As for Carolyn Bryant Donhom, there does not appear to be any justice forthcoming for her role in the murder of Till. Donhom is 82-years-old now. She raised her children and had grandchildren. She married and divorced and remarried. She evolved in a South that is always evolving and admitted she felt “tender sorrow” for Till’s mother. She seems to understand that Emmett Till never deserved his fate. I imagine she’s suffered some sleepless nights. A better person would say that she’s suffered enough, but I am not a better person. Words can be as deadly as bullets. The blood of Emmett Till is on Donhom’s hands and it’s on the hands of the judge and jury who took her at her word when there was plenty of evidence they shouldn’t.
Now we live in a country where truth is bent and shattered every day and we have all become the jury. If we accept words as truth without examination, without critical thought, then we are all culpable when those words lead to tragedy. And the words do lead to tragedy. Already we’ve seen an infant who needs life-saving surgery barred for critical days under the travel ban. We’ve seen doctors with valid visas turned away. We’ve seen children kept apart from families. And every day seems to bring new reports of swastikas painted on synagogues and hate speech shouted outside mosques. All of these things are made possible by the lies being spread—the lie that people who don’t look like us or talk like us or dress like us are somehow a danger to us, the lie that these people are not worth our respect or deserving of justice. It’s all so familiar. It’s all so exhausting. I can’t shake the idea that I am partly responsible for the things that are happening in the name of our country. I have been too numbed by violence and lies. Nothing surprises me. I feel like I’m being pulled by the undertow and I’m fighting to stay afloat. My dreams are filled with violent images, but at least I have a bed to sleep in. I can’t decide whether I feel good about that or whether I feel guilty.
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