One lie led to the death of Emmett Till. How many others have sent Black men to jail? | Solomon Jones
As federal prosecutors close a reinvestigation of Till’s murder, Solomon Jones reflects on formerly incarcerated people who’ve been exonerated — and those still caught in a "wheel of injustice."
I was pained to learn that the Justice Department’s reinvestigation of Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching would not result in perjury charges against the woman whose accusations led to his murder. But it hurts even more to know that 66 years later, America continues to symbolically lynch Black men with the noose of wrongful convictions.
In Philadelphia alone, 92% of the 27 people exonerated since 2016 are Black, according to the District Attorney’s Office. A quick cross-reference with the National Registry of Exonerations shows that they are also male. Though the overrepresentation of Black men among exonerated Philadelphians is extreme, it is part of a well-documented national trend. African Americans represented 47% of those in the exonerations database, according to a 2017 study, even though they make up 13% of the population.
That same study found that Black people convicted of crimes like murder and sexual assault are far more likely than their white counterparts to later be found innocent, especially when it comes to crimes with white victims. So, it stands to reason that if America can falsely convict Black people for crimes against white people even with the supposed safeguards of the criminal justice system, it must have been exceedingly easy for lies to prompt lynchings during the Jim Crow era.
» READ MORE: As Philly tops two dozen exonerations, city may face tens of millions in civil liability
That’s why the case of Emmett Till still matters. The 14-year-old Chicago native was killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was then 20, claimed that Till had flirted with her. The most well-known part of her claim was that Till whistled at her. She also claimed that he grabbed her hand and said that he had been with “white women before.”
At a time when even the most brash Black boy was taught to greet elders with “sir” or “ma’am,” the claim sounded implausible, but it didn’t stop Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam from abducting Till from his great uncle’s house, torturing him, and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. The men were acquitted for the crime by an all-white, all-male jury, but later admitted their guilt and detailed the crime in a Look magazine article. Both men died without ever facing any consequence for murdering Emmett Till.
The bravery of Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who held an open casket funeral to show the world what had happened to her son, was a catalyst for the civil rights movement in this country. But despite the big victories that would later come — at least in part as a result of Till’s death — there was no punishment for his killers.
» READ MORE: The Case That Collapsed | How Anthony Wright's exoneration led to perjury charges for 3 Philadelphia homicide detectives
For decades, rumors swirled about others being involved in the murder, prompting the Justice Department to reopen the case in 2004. However, a federal grand jury declined to charge anyone. Then, in 2017, a professor named Tim Tyson wrote a book called The Blood of Emmett Till, in which he wrote that Donham had partially recanted her testimony by saying that Till had not touched, threatened, or harassed her.
The Justice Department reopened its latest investigation, and because Tyson did not have Donham recanting on tape, and there were no witnesses to corroborate her recanting her original testimony, there was insufficient evidence to charge her.
But for me, the case of Emmett Till is not about one lie. It is about the lies that have always undergirded America’s criminal justice system. The lie that justice is equal. The lie that investigations are fair. The lie that police, prosecutors, and judges have always been impartial arbiters of the law.
The legacy of Emmett Till is alive and well in the wrongful convictions of Black men who continue to lose their lives to a system that sees them as interchangeable cogs in the wheel of injustice. It is a wheel that keeps on turning, despite the outward appearance of change.
Wrongful convictions are the nooses that hang Black men, and if we are ever to have justice in America, we must untie that knot.