Duke scholar gets exclusive interview, proves Emmett Till case wrong
Posted February 1
Updated February 2
Durham, N.C. — The death of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered in 1955 after a white woman in Mississippi said he flirted with her, helped galvanize the civil rights movement. More than a half century later, that woman said the testimony she gave in court was false.
Tim Tyson, a research scholar at Duke University, has a new book out called "The Blood of Emmett Till." Tyson is the only historian or journalist to ever interview the woman at the center of this pivotal case. But he wasn't looking for an interview – she came to him.
The interview began with a phone call in 2007. A woman was complimenting Tyson on another book of his about a racially motivated murder in North Carolina.
"I was just thanking her and getting off the phone, and she heard me doing that and said, 'My mother-in-law is going to be in town next week,'" Tyson said.
Her mother-in-law was Carolyn Bryant, the woman who encountered 14-year-old Till in a country store in Mississippi in 1955. Witnesses in the store said he whistled at her and made suggestive remarks. Three days later, he was yanked out of bed in the middle of the night, tortured, shot and his body thrown into a river.
More than 50 years later, Tyson was sitting with Bryant over coffee.
"What happened kind of hung over the room, and that was kind of hard for me to keep my mind on the person in front of me a little bit," Tyson said.
Bryant told him that what she testified at trial – where her husband was acquitted – was a lie. She said Till never made any physical sexual advances toward her. Tyson asked her what actually happened
"She said, 'Honestly, I'd like to tell you, but I can't remember. It was more than 50 years ago,'" Tyson said.
He also asked her what compelled her to fabricate the testimony.
"That's something she was coached to say, clearly. It's not at all what she said a couple weeks earlier with her attorney, and it's intended to acquit her husband and the law," he said.
Even though her husband and brother-in-law were acquitted, they confessed to the murders in an interview with Look magazine. Tyson said that Bryant told him, "nothing that boy did could justify what happened to him." But he said that murder was a powerful catalyst for toppling segregation.