Family of 14-year-old Emmett Till murdered in 1955 seeks arrest as film opens

Jalyn Hall as Emmett, with Danielle Deadwyler as his mother, Mamie, in Till, which opens on Friday  (Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pict)
Jalyn Hall as Emmett, with Danielle Deadwyler as his mother, Mamie, in Till, which opens on Friday (Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pict)

The family of Emmett Till is seeking the arrest of Carolyn Bryant Donham, after a warrant for her arrest was discovered nearly 70 years later.

Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi aged 14 by Donham’s husband and brother, after she alleged that the teenager made advances towards her. She is thought to have identified the boy before the men kidnapped him.

At the time, there was an arrest warrant issued for Donham but the county sheriff reportedly did not want to “bother” her because she had two young children.

Now, Donham is in her 80s and living in North Carolina. Members of the Emmett Till Foundation, including two family members, cousin Deborah Watts, head of the foundation, and her daughter, Teri Watts, have called for her arrest.

On Friday, Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, opens in UK cinemas. The film not only covers Emmett’s murder but also depicts his mother’s campaign for justice.

Who was Emmett Till?

Emmett Till was a black teenager from Chicago, Illinois. He was born on July 25, 1941.

At the age of 14, Emmett went to visit his cousins in Mississippi, staying with his great uncle and great aunt, Moses and Elizabeth Wright, in Money.

On August 24, three days after arriving in Mississippi, Emmett and his cousins went to a local shop to buy snacks.

As they left the shop, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham, who worked there and was the wife of the owner, said that Emmett wolf whistled at her before he and his cousins quickly left the area.

But it is believed that Donham wrongly accused Emmett of doing more than whistling, allegedly telling her husband that Emmett touched her, grabbed her waist and made sexual advances.

Days later, Donham’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother J W Milam, as well as other white men, kidnapped Emmett from his aunt and uncle’s house, after he was allegedly identified by Donham.

He was brutally killed before being tied to a large metal fan and his body dumped in the river.

When his body was found three days later, it was badly decomposed and his face mutilated. His uncle identified him by the ring he wore, which bore his father’s initials.

The aftermath of Emmett Till’s murder

Emmett was taken back to Chicago, where his mother decided to have an open casket funeral and display his body for five days.

This allowed thousands of people to witness the evidence of the hate crime, with his mother saying she wanted to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”

The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation said: “The courage and actions taken by his grieving mother Mamie Till set off a course of action that let the world know what happened to her only son.

“She was intent on achieving justice and taking the covers off of the hate and violence and the system of white supremacy that ruled and oppressed so many African Americans in Mississippi.”

Emmett’s murder sparked outrage across the US in the time of the civil rights movement.

Was anyone charged for Emmett’s murder?

Roy Bryant and J W Milam were arrested and tried for Emmett’s kidnapping and murder. Despite the evidence, including the men being identified by Emmett’s uncle, the two men were acquitted of all charges by an all-white, all-male jury.

Months later, protected by double jeopardy laws, the men admitted to killing the teenager, selling their story to a magazine.