from 'The Blood of Emmett Till' by Timothy B. TysonAs I sat drinking her coffee and eating her pound cake, Carolyn Bryant Donham handed me a copy of the trial transcript and the manuscript of her unpublished memoir, “More than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham.” I promised to deliver our interview and these documents to the appropriate archive, where future scholars would be able to use them. In her memoir she recounts the story she told at the trial using imagery from the classic Southern racist horror movie of the “Black Beast” rapist. But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, “That part’s not true.”
[...] If that part was not true, I asked, what did happen that evening decades earlier?
“I want to tell you,” she said. “Honestly, I just don’t remember. It was fifty years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.” Historians have long known about the complex reliability of oral history—of virtually all historical sources, for that matter—and the malleability of human memory, and her confession was in part a reflection of that. What does it mean when you remember something that you know never happened? She had pondered that question for many years, but never aloud in public or in an interview. When she finally told me the story of her life and starkly different and much larger tales of Emmett Till’s death, it was the first time in half a century that she had uttered his name outside her family.
Not long afterward I had lunch in Jackson, Mississippi, with Jerry Mitchell, the brilliant journalist at the Clarion-Ledger whose sleuthing has solved several cold case civil rights–era murders. I talked with him about my efforts to write about the Till case, and he shared some thoughts of his own. A few days after our lunch a manila envelope with a Mississippi return address brought hard proof that “that part,” as Carolyn had called the alleged assault, had never been true.
Mitchell had sent me copies of the handwritten notes of what Carolyn Bryant told her attorney on the day after Roy and J.W. were arrested in 1955. In this earliest recorded version of events, she charged only that Till had “insulted” her, not grabbed her, and certainly not attempted to rape her. The documents prove that there was a time when she did seem to know what had happened, and a time soon afterward when she became the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie.
She admits she lied about being grabbed, she doesn't really remember. Original documents state that she originally claimed only insulted her. Interesting.