OPINION: Accuser’s death is not closure for Emmett Till

The stretch of 71st Street renamed Emmett Till Road is literally around the corner from where I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

The street was renamed in 1991, more than 30 years after Till was killed at age 14. He was kidnapped, beaten and shot for allegedly violating the social mores of Jim Crow Mississippi.

So much of my life happened at spaces on that street – tennis lessons at the country club, meals at my favorite pizzeria, excursions to the drugstore as a teen to search for the perfect shade of nail polish.

After the street name changed, whenever I glanced at the honorary sign, I thought about Emmett Till.

I thought about the men and women who surrounded him with love, but mostly about his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who dedicated her life to making sure her son’s death would not be in vain.

Last month, another death was recorded — that of Carolyn Bryant Donham. Donham is the white woman who, at age 21, accused Till, a Black teenager, of inappropriate advances and assault. Till was in Money, Mississippi, visiting relatives. The accusations from Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant, prompted her husband and his half-brother to murder Till and dump his body in the Tallahatchie River.

I was surprised when comments on social media suggested Donham’s death, at age 88, was somehow a form of justice.

“My child is dead, and she is going to be fine. Carolyn Bryant is going to be fine,” said a fictionalized version of Mamie Till in “Till,” a 2022 film.

Donham lived a long life that included husbands and children and classes at the community college, according to her obituary in The New York Times.

The truth about what happened that day in 1955 is now buried with Donham and Till, but each has a legacy that lives on.

As Till-Mobley noted in “Death of Innocence,” the account of her life published the year she died in 2003, every generation has its cautionary tales.

For Generation X, the first generation of Black Americans to grow up in the post civil rights era, the story of Emmett Till figures prominently.

The Tills were part of the migration chain that brought African Americans from Mississippi to Chicago. This is how it came to be that Till, like many of us with roots in the South, was sent to visit family and cousins for a few weeks in the summer.

For those of us who shared this annual ritual, Till’s story always loomed in the background.

Just as fictional Mamie gave her son overt instructions to always stay with his cousins and to “be small down there,” my mother would tell me to “tone it down,” and I knew exactly what she meant.

Even in the post civil rights era, going to Mississippi meant adopting a different way of moving through the world. During those summer visits, my solo exploration of the neighborhood would never extend beyond the front yard of my paternal grandmother’s house. I don’t recall ever interacting with anyone outside of my family.

I wonder now if my parents worried over my sister and I the way Mamie worried over Emmett.

Like Mamie, they navigated the stress of raising Black children with just the right balance — protecting without stifling, giving enough without giving too much. My parents would drive us down to Mississippi, stay for a few days before leaving us behind with those reminders about how to behave. As the Oldsmobile station wagon kicked up dust, we waved from the porch. I imagine they prayed for our safe return.

My parents were entrusting our safety to the state of Mississippi at a moment in time when many of us wanted to believe the brutal crime that happened to Emmett Till could never happen again. And that, if it did, those responsible certainly would be brought to justice.

But Mamie Till-Mobley never knew justice.

In her lifetime, she talked at length about her decision to share her pain with the world. Talking to the public helped her work through the horror of losing her son, she said. It allowed her to share the sorrow, the pain and the anger that was too much for one person to absorb.

After 122 years and more than 200 proposed bills, the country finally passed a federal anti-lynching law in March 2022. It is named for Emmett Till. But no one was ever punished for Till’s murder.

Donham’s death should not be viewed as closure. It is an invitation to keep fighting for justice and equality.

“As long as the Emmett Till murder is unresolved, this case will sit there like a thorn in the side of our sense of justice and fair play,” Till-Mobley wrote in her memoir. “It will continue to poke at us, to prick our conscience and irritate. Without a resolution, we can never be at ease.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.