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The Emmett Till Lynching Has Seen More Than its Share of Liars. Is Tim Tyson One of Them?

Editor’s note: Since 1991, Jerry Mitchell has investigated the brutal torture and killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi. In recent years, he has examined the allegation that Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted she lied when she testified. Here is what he found.

By Jerry Mitchell

Mississippi Today

Award-winning historian Tim Tyson swears he heard admissions regarding Emmett Till’s lynching and another racial murder.

Admissions that weren’t recorded. Admissions that no one else heard. Admissions that he began hearing when he was 10.

“The question is not whether Tim Tyson fooled us once,” said Devery Anderson, author of “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement.” “The question is whether he fooled us twice — and got away with it.”

Tyson has said he heard these admissions. He didn’t respond to requests for comments on the Till matter, but he has previously spoken to me, the FBI and others. All these are noted.

Tyson’s 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” lit the bomb that exploded around the world with this claim: The white woman at the center of the Emmett Till case, Carolyn Bryant Donham, had admitted she lied when she testified that he had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.

For some in the Till family, such as his cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, the revelation represented the hope of clearing his cousin’s name. “I was elated,” he said.

He had longed to hear Donham say she lied about Till and planned to forgive her when she did, said the longtime pastor. “I was raised to believe deeply in forgiveness. If you don’t forgive, God won’t forgive you.”

Tim Tyson

For some in the Till family, the revelation raised hopes of a possible prosecution. His cousin, Deborah Watts, said there should be “a revisiting of the evidence in light of this revelation,” and Bennie Thompson, the Democratic congressman for the Mississippi Delta, called for an investigation, saying this represented “an opportunity to bring some justice to an innocent 14-year-old boy.”

For Till’s cousin, Ollie Gordon, the revelation sounded like a ruse. She saw no logic, she said, in Donham sharing such information with someone she hardly knew.

“I thought, ‘Oh, here we go. This man wants to sell his book,’” she said. “He knew if he put that lie out, that was going to help him sell the book.”

The fact that Tyson spoke to Donham but no one in the Till family reflects his mindset, she said. “If you want first-hand information, you go to the family. If you want to write what you want to write, you just bypass the family.”

What Tyson did to the Till family is nothing new, she said. “People have made money off the blood of Emmett Till and the backs of the Till family. They’re all chasing the dollar. They don’t care how they get it.”

Parker still remembers the night of Aug. 28, 1955, when two men with guns stormed the Mississippi Delta home where he and his cousin, Emmett Till, were staying. He and Till had come from Chicago to visit relatives.

It was past 2 a.m., “as dark as a thousand midnights,” Parker said, when he heard angry voices from the gloom.

A flashlight shone down the hall, and he shut his eyes, ready to hear the shots that would steal his life. He trembled as he prayed, his 16 years flitting across his mind, he said. “I knew I wasn’t right with God.”

He heard the men say they “wanted the fat boy” that had “done the talking” at Bryant’s Grocery.

Before long, their steps receded and then their voices. They were gone, and so was his cousin, Emmett, whom kidnappers hauled to a remote barn and began beating.

After the first light came, Parker fled Mississippi.

For 30 years, he wasn’t asked about what he had seen, but in the decades since, he has spoken out.

While visiting one school, a white student told Parker that Till had “misbehaved” inside the store and got what he deserved.

“What could he have done to deserve that?” Parker said he responded. “I know he didn’t do anything.”

He and another cousin said they never saw Till do or say anything to Donham inside the store. All Till did was whistle at her after she walked outside, they said.

Several nights later, Till’s murderers executed their own judgment, Parker said. “They killed him for what? A whistle?”

Emmett Till was beaten, tortured and killed in this barn on Aug. 28, 1955.

Till’s torture lasted much of the night, and witnesses heard him screaming past dawn. By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon, his cries became fainter.

Silence followed.

Till’s killers tried to bury their evil deeds by tying a 75-pound gin fan around his neck and tossing his body into water that fed into the Tallahatchie River.

The next day, when a deputy questioned two of the killers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, they admitted they had kidnapped Till, but insisted they had released him unharmed. Days later, his body bobbed back to the river’s surface.

Sheriff Clarence Strider tried to bury Till’s brutalized body in a local cemetery to conceal the evil deed, but when his mother found out, she demanded his return to Chicago, where she opened his casket. “I wanted the world,” she said, “to see what I had seen.”

The lies continued after his funeral.

After arrests in the case, Bryant’s wife, Donham, told the defense lawyer that Till came into Bryant’s Grocery, grabbed her hand, asked for a date and said “goodbye” as he left.

But weeks later, the lawyer announced to reporters that Till had “mauled” Donham, and she echoed that lie from the witness stand. With the jury out of the courtroom, she claimed that Till had grabbed her around the waist, told her “you needn’t be afraid of me,” and said he had sex with white women before.

The sheriff got in on the lies, too. After Till was found, the sheriff told reporters the body had only been in the river a few days, released the body to a Black mortician and filled out a death certificate for Till.

But by the time the trial began, he had become a witness for the defense. He testified that the body had been in the water for at least 10 days and that he couldn’t tell the color of the skin — only that it was human. His words backed the incredulous defense claim that Till was still alive and that the NAACP had planted a cadaver in the river. (Five decades later, an autopsy and a DNA test proved that Till’s body was the one in his grave.)

In this Sept. 22. 1955 photo, Carolyn Bryant rests her head on her husband Roy Bryant’s shoulder after she testified in Emmett Till murder court case in Sumner, Miss. Stymied in their calls for a renewed investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, relatives and activists are advocating another possible path toward accountability in Mississippi: They want authorities to launch a kidnapping prosecution against the woman who set off the lynching by accusing the Chicago teen of improper advances in 1955. (AP Photo, File)

The all-white jury acquitted the two men, despite believing they had killed Till, according to interviews the jurors gave Stephen Whitaker, who researched the case for his master’s thesis.

If those lies weren’t enough, journalist William Bradford Huie concealed the identities of other killers with his Look magazine article.

Huie told his editor that four men had taken part in the “torture-and-murder party,” but when the editor insisted on getting legal releases from all four, the murder party shrunk to two. (One trial witness, Willie Reed, identified four white men riding in the cab of the truck while three Black men held Till in the back.)

As for Huie, he had dreams of a Hollywood film and paid Till’s killers $3,150 for their rights.

The idea of Huie making “a deal with the murderers” angered Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and her attorney sent a cease and desist letter to United Artists, said Till documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

Huie’s 1956 article became gospel in the Till case until a new FBI investigation almost a half century later. Dale Killinger, who conducted that probe, said “the damage from those lies was deeper and broader than just Till’s murder.”

Three months before Till was killed, the Rev. George Lee was assassinated because he helped Black Mississippians register to vote in Belzoni. The sheriff claimed the shotgun pellets found in Lee’s face were loose fillings from his teeth.

Lamar Smith was gunned down in broad daylight on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven. Despite the killer being covered in blood, the sheriff maintained there were no witnesses.

Killinger said these types of killings — and the lies that made them possible —  “perpetuated generational trauma.”

Mamie Till looks at the brutalized body of her son, Emmett Till. She is comforted by Gene Mobley, whom she would later marry.

By age 7, Tim Tyson was already spinning yarns.

He and his best friend “would lie there in the dark in the twin beds, and I would tell him stories, making them up as I went,” Tyson wrote in his memoir, “Blood Done Signed My Name.”

With each concocted tale, his friend cheered him on. “His fierce and unfeigned enthusiasm for these rambling odysseys,” Tyson wrote, “was like a drug to me.”

His friend even coined a name for them: “Tim’s Tall Tales.”

By the time Tyson telephoned me in 2008, he was already mesmerizing audiences with his stories of growing up in Oxford, North Carolina, and his memoir was being made into a movie.

Over lunch at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson, Tyson, who serves as a senior research scholar for the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, told me he landed an interview with Donham, the first interview I had ever heard of her giving to a historian. I congratulated him.

We talked about the Till case and much of the lore surrounding it.

Months later, we met in Jackson, he said he had finished talking with her. He told me her story mirrored her testimony, where she claimed Till had mauled her.

“You know she lied, don’t you?” I asked.

The statement surprised him, and afterward, I mailed him a copy of the statement she had made to the defense lawyer, where she mentioned nothing about Till grabbing her or talking about having sex with her.

He used that statement in his book and tried to talk with Donham again. She turned him down.

Much to my surprise, “The Blood of Emmett Till” hit the shelves in 2017 with the claim that Donham had admitted to Tyson that she had lied when she testified that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities.

News of the revelation spread like wildfire, first through top publications and television stations, before hitting Black radio, television, websites and word of mouth. “The Blood of Emmett Till” shot onto The New York Times Bestseller List and won the Robert F. Kennedy Award.

Calls arose for her prosecution, and the Justice Department began to look at the Till case again.

Questions soon surfaced. A source told me that Donham’s family was saying she didn’t recant, and I telephoned her then-daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant, who said she was present the whole time and never heard the quotation Tyson attributed to Donham. Bryant said she had a copy of the transcript and the quote wasn’t in it.

When I reached out to Tyson in 2018, he confirmed he didn’t have the bombshell quote on tape, saying he was still setting up his recorder.

The book “Till” opens with Donham drinking coffee and serving Tyson a slice of pound cake. “She had never opened her door to a journalist or historian, let alone invited one for cake and coffee,” he wrote.

Bryant said Tyson actually brought the cake himself, and after the interview, he took it back with him.

Tyson told me his recorder wasn’t working when Donham said, “They’re all dead now anyway,” so he snatched up his notebook, began scribbling notes and heard her recantation.

But when the FBI began to investigate the matter, he gave investigators multiple accounts: that his recorder wasn’t working, that his recording was lost, that he didn’t realize he didn’t have her recantation on tape until much later.

Tyson wrote that Donham handed him a trial transcript and the memoir. Bryant disputed that, saying Donham never handed Tyson anything.

Tyson wrote that after Donham handed him the transcript, she said, “That part is not true.”

Tyson emailed me a photograph of his undated notes, which he shared with the FBI: “That pt wasn’t true. … 50 yrs ago. I just don’t remember. … Nothing that boy ever did could justify what happened to him.”

The way the quote appears in the “Till” book (italics show the words missing from the notes): “They’re all dead now anyway. … I want to tell you. Honestly, I just don’t remember. It was 50 years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true. … Nothing that boy ever did could justify what happened to him.”

Tyson told me Donham’s recantation took place in July 2008.

The problem with that date? He hadn’t met her yet, according to emails he wrote in August 2008 to her family.

Asked by email how he could have interviewed Donham in July 2008 when he had yet to meet her then, Tyson did not reply.

Tyson said Bryant didn’t take exception to “any of the facts” in the book, but was upset about people posting pictures of their house on the Internet.

Bryant told me she did object and shared an email with the FBI that she had sent Tyson, wanting to know why he was saying Donham had admitted she lied.

Bryant wrote Donham’s memoir, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” and shared a copy with Tyson, who said in an August 2008 email that the work would prove “invaluable to history.”

Bryant said Tyson agreed to act as an editor for the book — a claim he told me was “bullsh–.”

But emails and edited versions of Donham’s memoir show Tyson edited the book, suggested revisions and rewrote the preface. The Department of Justice’s report also noted Tyson’s editing.

In a note Tyson put at the top of Donham’s memoir on March 6, 2009, he wrote, “Dear Marsha and Carolyn: I am sorry to take so long getting this back to you. I enjoyed reading it. But editing is hard work …

“Read over my edits and comments. I think they may suggest to you some of the broad outlines for another revision. When you finish another version — there will be several more, which is the nature of the publication process — you may feel free to send it to me. … You’ve done a great job thus far.”

He emailed Bryant and asked her to list him as “editor of the final project, since I am a professional scholar who has a boss (the dean) who wants to know how I spent my time and energy. ‘Editor’ can go on my annual report and suggest to the dean that I don’t just sit around and drink coffee and read the newspaper, regardless of what my wife and children might report to the contrary.”

Bryant believes it was “unethical” for him to serve as her editor and then take passages from her book to use in his own publication, she said. “He denied being my editor. It’s pretty damn obvious he was my editor.”

She said she is even angrier that Tyson recently made public a copy of her book, she said. “It appears to me that he is trying to inject himself into the Emmett Till story again by making sure he’s front and center.”

Tyson denied to the FBI that he ever agreed to assist Bryant in getting the memoir published, but in his first email to the family in August 2008, he wrote, “ think you should try to publish this book, and I will be glad to offer what help I can, including introducing you to my agent.”

At no point in Donham’s memoir, the two interviews she gave Tyson or the interviews she gave the FBI does she say she recanted. In fact, in her memoir, she doubled down on the claim that Till attacked her. She even made the head-scratching claim that when Till’s kidnappers asked her if he was the one who attacked her in the store, she refused to say — only for Till to identify himself to his kidnappers.

One of the biggest questions the FBI had for Tyson was why, after Donham recanted, he never asked her to repeat her statement or quiz her about this contradiction. He told the FBI that he didn’t want to interrupt the “flow” of the conversation, but he interrupted her at other times to clarify points, the Justice Department noted in its report closing the Till case.

Tyson had other opportunities in his editing of the memoir. He wrote many suggestions and questions about the book, but he never asked Donham a single question about what he claimed was her recantation.

The FBI asked Tyson why he failed to share this important evidence with authorities for nearly a decade, and he replied that he thought the case was closed.

When investigators interviewed Tyson, “rather than obtaining other corroborating evidence to support Tyson’s claim that … [Donham] offered a recantation,” the report said, “investigators instead identified numerous inconsistencies in Tyson’s account that raised questions about the credibility of his account of the interviews.”

Carolyn Bryant Donham, who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, has died in hospice care in Louisiana. She was 88.

In closing the Till case on Dec. 6, 2021, the Justice Department said, “Tyson’s account lacks credibility,” citing his “shifting explanations to FBI investigators …, the questionable nature of his relationship with [Donham], and his financial motives.”

Sixteen months later, Donham died — and with it any hope of a prosecution in the Till case.

After discovering these things about “The Blood of Emmett Till,” I reached out to a historian, who told me, “You know there were problems with Tyson’s previous book.”

That was news to me. Researcher Brandon Arvesen and I dove deeper into “Blood Done Sign My Name” and found some faulty footnotes, wrong details, wrong dates and even wrong quotations.

The book centers on the May 11, 1970, killing of Henry Marrow, a 23-year-old Black man killed by members of the Teel family. After his slaying, Robert and Larry Teel turned themselves in to authorities, who moved them from a local jail to a prison in Raleigh 40 miles away, according to newspaper accounts.

The book opens with Tyson claiming his 10-year-old friend, Gerald Teel, told him in person on the evening of May 12, 1970, that his father, Robert, and his brother, Roger, shot “a n—–” last night in Oxford, North Carolina.

One problem with this claim? The Teel family may have already left town for safety reasons to Mount Olive, more than 100 miles away, according to newspaper reports.

The Feb. 21, 1971, Durham Herald-Sun newspaper says Teel’s sons “did not return to school in Oxford after May 11. Instead, they were enrolled in classes in Mount Olive where they finished out the term.”

Asked about this, Tyson replied by email, “I will respond by directing you to the ‘Author’sNote,’ which I would think you might already have read, but nobody’s memory is perfect. ‘This book is both memoir and history… I am under no impression that my memories reflect the indisputable facts of the matter, though I believe them to be true.’”

Wheeler Parker, stands in this 2018 photo, beside a marker commemorating where the body of his cousin Emmett Till was removed from the river in 1955

When Till’s cousin, Parker, found out that Donham, the white woman at the center of the case, denied she had ever recanted and there was no recording, his heart sank, he said. “It was a blow.”

Tyson “did some big lying,” said Parker, whose book with Chris Benson, “A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till,” was published in January. “He said he had a recorder, but everything is missing.”

Tyson has defended the recantation, telling The New York Times that he took detailed notes: “Carolyn started spilling the beans before I got the recorder going. I documented her words carefully. My reporting is rock solid.”

Till’s cousin, Gordon, said for the author to make things right to the Till family, he would need to apologize for the harm he has caused them. “He would have to admit he fabricated this,” she said.

Tyson did not reply to a request for comment on the Till family’s remarks.

After the release of his Till book in 2017, CBS This Morning interviewed Tyson about the bombshell quote from Donham, whom he suggested had recanted because she was remorseful. 

“We’re not punished for our sins; we’re punished by our sins,” he told Gayle King. “Nobody ever gets away with anything.”

Researcher Brandon Arvesen contributed to this report.

UPDATE 8/28/23: This story has been updated to include an emailed statement from Tim Tyson.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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