The Mystery Of The Unserved Warrant In The Emmett Till Case

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black teen, was one of the tipping points that led to the American Civil Rights movement. Till was accused of flirting with and touching a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, who was working behind the counter of a country store owned by her husband, Roy Bryant. These allegations — which Carolyn Bryant later admitted decades later were untrue — led Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, to brutally torture and murder Till and dump his body in the Tallahatchie River per History.

The murder, and the shocking photos that came from Till's open-casket funeral, captured the nation's attention, but both Bryant and Milam were found "not guilty" and the state of Mississippi decided not to pursue additional kidnapping charges against them. However, the Emmett Till case took a turn few expected in 2022, when a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant was found in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse. According to CBS News, this has led to calls for her arrest nearly 70 years later.

Emmett Till was visiting family in 1955

Emmett Till was from Chicago, but in the late summer of 1955, he was staying with relatives in Money, Mississippi. According to Britannica, his mother, Mamie, warned him that some behaviors that people tolerated in the northern part of the country, wouldn't be looked at the same way by white Southerners. She felt this kind of warning was necessary because she knew that her son liked to play practical jokes (via History).

Till's trip to the Mississippi came at a time when tensions were high surrounding issues of race. Just one year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court released their decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned a previous ruling — 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson — which permitted racial segregation. Till arrived in town on August 21, 1955, and stayed with great-uncle Mose Wright. Wright was a sharecropper and Till spent a good portion of his time helping him with that season's cotton harvest.

On August 24, Till was with friends outside of the local store. Accounts of this day vary a great deal, but some claim that another boy dared Till to go in and talk to Carolyn Bryant who was behind the counter. Till was later accused of whistling at her, flirting with her, and touching her on either the hand or waist.

The murder of Emmett Till

Till never mentioned anything about the store to Wright, however, according to History, Bryant told her husband, Roy, that Till had harassed her once he had returned from a business trip several days later. Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam went to Wright's house and forced Till into their car. According to the Library of Congress, two of Till's cousins witnessed the kidnapping.

Bryant and Milam beat the 14-year-old and gouged out one of his eyes before shooting him and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River, his battered body tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire. Till's remains were recovered a few days later but were in such bad shape that the only way Wright could positively identify his great-nephew's body was because his corpse still bore the monogrammed ring that belonged to Till's late father. Till's mother asked that her son's body be returned to Chicago where an open-casket funeral was held. Photos of Till's body quickly found their way into newspapers around the world.

Bryan and Milam were charged with Till's murder, and Wright was even able to identify the two as the men who had arrived at his house and forced Till into their car. Still, the all-white jury found the accused killers not guilty and accused the state of not doing a good enough job of proving that the body belonged to Till in the first place, per History. No further charges regarding the case were brought against either man.

The legacy of the Till Case and continued developments

Emmett Till's murder was a major turning point in the American Civil Rights movement as it highlighted the brutal reality Black people living in the southern United States during the era of Jim Crow segregation faced daily, per History. However, the case has still continued to take twists and turns over the decades. In 2017, it was revealed that Carolyn Bryant had recanted her original testimony and that Till never did any of the things that she had originally accused him of doing.

In 2022, an even more shocking development emerged. According to CBS News, a group of people working for the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation was combing through the basement of a Mississippi courthouse for documents and evidence connected to the Emmett Till murder. Sure enough, they made a startling discovery: an unserved warrant dating back to 1955 for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant.

What happens next?

The warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham, as she is known — though it only names "Mrs. Roy Bryant" — was found in a file folder in the courthouse basement. According to CBS News, the document was determined to be genuine and it called for the arrest of "Mrs. Roy Bryant" for kidnapping. Two of the people searching the basement included two of Till's relatives, his cousin Deborah Watts and her daughter Teri Watts, who called for the warrant to be served nearly 70 years after it was issued. "Serve it and charge her," Watts told the Associated Press

Carolyn Bryant Donham is still alive and in her 80s. Most recently, she was known to be living in North Carolina. Bryant Donham has made no public comments about the warrant since its discovery.

Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks told the Associated Press that this was the first he had heard about this warrant and that it hadn't even come up during an investigation into the case just five or six years earlier. "I will see if I can get a copy of the warrant and get with the DA and get their opinion on it," Banks said. However, according to the Associated Press, an arrest warrant that old is unlikely to hold up in court.