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Emmett Till's family says 'white pedestal' theory has denied them justice for decades

A mural featuring a portrait of civil rights icon Emmett Till in Chicago.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A mural featuring a portrait of civil rights icon Emmett Till in Chicago.

The family of murdered teenager Emmett Till is calling for a grand jury hearing to examine a woman accused of playing a key role in his lynching in 1955, saying a "white pedestal theory" has denied them justice for decades.

An arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham, dated Aug. 29, 1955, was found last month in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse and has renewed calls for authorities to take action on the decades-old case.

"We considered it to be somewhat miraculous," said Jaribu Hill, who represents the family of Emmett Till. "All of the officials had been telling us that if there was a warrant, they didn't know of its present existence."

This undated photo shows Emmett Till at 14 years old.
/ AP
This undated photo shows Emmett Till at 14 years old.

In 1955, then 14-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at and grabbing Donham, a 21-year-old white woman. Shortly after, Till was abducted, tortured and killed by Donham's then husband Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam. Both men were tried for Till's murder and then acquitted by an all-white jury.

A few months later, both men admitted in a magazine interview to murdering Till. And nearly 50 years later, Donham told a historian that Till had never touched her.

"We would like to see the warrant served because it has not expired. We want to see that warrant served on Carolyn Bryant," Hill said.

"We also want her culpability to be the subject of an actual grand jury hearing, specifically addressing her culpability," she said. "We believe through addressing her culpability, that at the very least, there will be a full fledged investigation."

"What we hope is that there will be an indictment. What we hope is that there will be a trial where she is charged with a kidnapping that led to murder and she is properly before the court."

Questions remain about why it took so long to find the documents themselves, and how they even physically existed all these years later. But Hill does not think the delayed discovery of these documents is a coincidence.

"There was, and there still exists today, the white pedestal theory where white women are above reproach," Hill said.

"Back in the day when the lynchings were raging and Mississippi had the largest number of lynchings ... we know that many of those lynchings occurred because there was an alleged encounter between a Black man and a white woman."

This pedestal, Hill said, is why someone like Donham had not faced consequences for her actions on that day. But Hill said the family would like to see that change in the light of this discovery.

A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Illinois.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
Getty Images
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois.

The challenge for Till's family lies in whether or not the justice system agrees with them. Hill said that conversations with the Mississippi Fourth Circuit Court District Attorney W. Dewayne Richardson had not led to any immediate action.

"He is solidly of the opinion that there is no new evidence, there is no cause to explore these questions and these demands that we're raising," Hill said.

"The Department of Justice, as you know, closed the case once again on December 6 of this past year, citing that there was no new information, no new evidence, and that they were not able to prove any culpability on the part of Carolyn Bryant Donham."

Hill said that they still had reason to believe their case was solid. She emphasized that the warrant has not expired, and that bringing the case before the proper judicial body would be the first step to explore culpability, and, "to force the issue of accountability."

Hill said this case was bigger than their experience with the justice system.

"We're challenging law enforcement and elected officials in particular to do their duties, to see that justice is done, and to strip away the final remnants of the double standard that still prevails to this day," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 14, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier photo caption misspelled Alsip, Ill., as Aslip.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.