I see Carolyn Bryant has died.
That name would mean nothing to most readers of this blog, but it resonated with me.
Carolyn Bryant was the woman 14-year-old Emmett Till was alleged to have propositioned or wolf-whistled (the accounts vary) in a country store in the tiny town of Money, Mississippi, in 1955. If it happened at all, it was an act of youthful bravado that cost him his life.
Till was black; Bryant was white. And one thing you soon learn if you read anything about the Jim Crow era in the American South is that black males making sexual advances to white women, either actual or merely alleged, was regarded as the ultimate challenge to white supremacy – one that often resulted in a lynching.
Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J W Milam subsequently abducted Till, tortured him and killed him before throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Yes, that Tallahatchie River – the one Bobbie Gentry referred to in her song Ode to Billie Joe.
It was because of the Tallahatchie River that my wife and I stumbled by chance on Money in 2012. I was gathering information for my book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis and wanted to see the Tallahatchie Bridge – the one Billie Joe Macalister threw something from in an enigmatic line from Gentry’s song.
The Tallahatchie Bridge
Money, which is a mere speck on the map in a sparsely populated part of the Mississippi Delta, was just down the road from the bridge. As we drove through, we noticed a sign beside the road indicating an historic place. The sign stood outside the remains of an abandoned two-storey building that had almost completely disappeared under a tangle of trees and vines.
The sign outside what remains of Bryant's grocery
This, it turned out, was the former Bryant’s grocery store, where Carolyn Bryant, then aged 21, was behind the counter when Till, who was staying with relatives while on holiday from Chicago, came in to buy candy. Bryant claimed he flirted with her and the rest, quite literally, is history.
The boy, who was known as Bobo, was taken by force from his great-uncle’s home in the early hours of the morning and driven to a barn where he was beaten and shot with a .45-calibre pistol. Then he was secured to a 34 kg gin fan – a heavy wheel used in the processing of cotton – and thrown into the river.
It was not only a brutal murder but a gratuitously sadistic one. In an element of perhaps unintended symbolism, Emmett Till was tied to the gin fan with barbed wire that had been wrapped around his neck.
Bryant and Milam were arrested within 24 hours of the boy’s body being pulled from the river – but if their apprehension was prompt, so was their acquittal. Despite Till’s great-uncle Moses Wright identifying them as the men who had abducted the boy, a jury of 12 white men took only 67 minutes to find them not guilty. It would have been even quicker had the jurors not taken a break for a refreshing drink of soda pop.
The gentlemen of the jury
The two defendants were never convicted, even after confessing to the crime in a paid magazine interview. Both eventually died in their 60s of natural causes. That’s the second thing you learn if you read anything about the Jim Crow era in the Deep South: convictions for race crimes were almost non-existent as long as prosecutions were carried out under state rather than federal jurisdiction.
It was while standing outside the ruins of Bryant’s store that my wife and I had one of those freakish encounters that sometimes happen when you’re travelling. A gleaming new Ford pickup truck pulled up and the driver introduced himself as Roy Boone, who told us he owned a farm about 40 miles away. Although more or less a local, he claimed never to have been to Money before and wanted to know whether the derelict building was the one the Bryants owned. When we confirmed that it was, he told us that he owned the land where Till was murdered, though he hadn’t known that when he bought the land years after the event.
There was a large patch of bare earth on the property that had previously been a blacksmith’s shop. “That was where they killed him,” Boone told us. He was also familiar with the moribund cotton gin where the killers got the fan; he drove past it every week. Then he revealed that he had once met Carolyn Bryant. In the 1990s, she came to the church where Boone taught Sunday School. “She was still a purty woman, even then,” he recalled.
Writing about this in my book, I noted that it was an eerie coincidence that Boone should have turned up at this deserted place on a quiet Sunday morning when we happened to be there.
We encountered the Emmett Till story again a few days later in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which is housed in the former Lorraine Motel – scene of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. One of the exhibits is devoted to Till’s murder, which became one of the defining events of the civil rights movement. It includes a photo of the boy lying in a coffin that his mother insisted on being left uncovered so that people could see his brutally disfigured face.
Carolyn Bryant, who subsequently divorced her husband and remarried, died last week aged 88. The extent of her role in the torture and murder of Emmett Till remains unclear.
My book is still available here.