Emmett Till's Family Reacts to Accuser Recanting Part of Her Story: 'It's a Great Relief'
That’s how Emmett Till’s family describes the revelation that the woman who accused him of lewd behavior more than 60 years ago, before the black 14-year-old was abducted and killed by two white men, is saying now that part of her story was false.
“Now he’s put in another light. That means a lot to me,” Wheeler Parker, Till’s cousin, tells PEOPLE of the news. “That’s a godsend to me for her to say that.”
Parker says the family “knew all the time” the allegations were untrue. “That’s what got [Till] killed: her lie. Her lie is what got him killed.”
Till’s brutal beating death in Mississippi in 1955, the acquittal of his professed killers by an all-white jury and the photos of his dead body sparked outrage outside the state — becoming a catalyst for the national civil rights movement.
Authorities say the teen was killed during a visit from Chicago after Carolyn Bryant Donham, then named Carolyn Bryant, reportedly accused him of grabbing her by the hand and waist and acting salaciously at her shop. Till was kidnapped days later, beaten and mutilated, before being shot, by Donham’s shop-owner husband at the time, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam.
After a highly publicized trial, Bryant and Milam were acquitted in September 1955. The jury deliberated for an hour.
Donham testified at the trial and, according to Vanity Fair, her allegations were entered into the record and shared with reporters by her attorneys — but they were not heard by the jury, which had been excused from the courtroom.
In January 1956, Bryant and Milam confessed to their guilt in Till’s death in a Look magazine article. (Both men have since died.)
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Donham avoided public attention for much of her life. But she sat down with Timothy B. Tyson 10 years ago for his book The Blood of Emmett Till, according to Vanity Fair and the Austin American-Statesman.
Donham’s 2007 interview, when she was 72, is published for the first time in Tyson’s book, which was released earlier this year. Of her accusation that Till had physically and verbally harassed her at the store, she said, according to Vanity Fair: “That part’s not true.”
It’s an admission Parker tells PEOPLE he has known for decades: He was with Till at the store that day in 1955 and says “nothing” of what Donham claimed is true, except that Till did whistle at her after he left the store — apparently not realizing the offense it could cause.
For decades, Parker says, he has dealt with the pain of people assuming Till somehow brought upon his own death. But Donham’s interview “clears his name.”
“It’s a great relief to me to hear that she’s saying he [did] nothing to deserve [his] death,” Parker says, referring to another part of Donham’s interview with Tyson.
“Honestly, I just don’t remember,” Donham said of her fateful meeting with Till, according to the Statesman. “It was 50 years ago. You tell these stories for so long that they seem true.”
Parker says he harbors no animosity toward her as “I refuse to let anger destroy me.” A pastor of 24 years, he believes Donham’s comments may be a way to “make peace with God.” (She and her relatives have not returned PEOPLE’s messages seeking comment.)
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While Parker says he would like more information about Till’s case, another criminal investigation is unlikely: The FBI reviewed the case for two years, beginning in 2004, and a Mississippi grand jury decided not to bring any indictments.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he was aware of the developments in Till’s case but could not confirm or deny any investigation. “I will do all the law allows to make sure justice is done,” he said.
Dewayne Richardson, the Leflore County district attorney in Mississippi, tells PEOPLE he is not prepared to comment on the possibility of further action.
Still, Parker is glad the world now knows what he has for so long.
Asked if he would like to say anything to Donham, he tells PEOPLE: “We appreciate you telling the truth. It puts Emmett in a different light now.
“Spill it all.”
• With LINDSAY KIMBLE