Emmett Till, left, and Carolyn (Bryant) Donham
Hear why an unpublished memoir is raising new questions about Emmett Till lynching
02:18 - Source: CNN

Editor’s note: Sophia A. Nelson is a journalist and author of the book “Be the One You Need: 21 Life Lessons I Learned While Taking Care of Everyone but Me.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read  more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Like many Black Americans of her day, my maternal grandmother subscribed for years to Jet magazine and to Ebony, publications that played the same role in the Black community that Life magazine and Look played for White Americans. The two magazines reflected back to our community the moments of signal importance and elevated the issues and individuals we cared most about.

Sophia A. Nelson

My grandmother held on to decades of copies that were most special to her. Plastered on their covers were the faces of the Supremes or Malcolm X or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. These figures were household names even for White Americans, but for people who looked like us, they were Black royalty.

In a pre-civil rights-era America, where the fury of racial hatred and oppression rained down on Black Americans every day, it was a comfort to keep these magazines as a reminder that — however much White society tried to diminish us — we as a people were bold, resourceful, intelligent, talented and gifted.

These magazines that exalted Black excellence also provided a tangible reminder — one that could be seen on the coffee table and later stashed away for posterity on a closet shelf — that we could aspire to such levels of achievement as well.

Holding those magazine issues decade after decade was also a way to remind us of the signature moments of our history. Some of those events were not celebratory: the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, for example. Those were tragic events for our entire country, but Jet and Ebony captured the particularly profound loss for a community sorely in need — especially in the 1950s and 1960s — of Black heroes and icons.

One particular magazine issue that my grandmother kept stands out in my memory above all others, capturing a grim, almost unimaginable horror from America’s past.

And that’s why, when I heard the news that Emmett Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant, had died, I immediately thought about a family reunion some 40 years ago or so, when my grandmother showed her assembled children and her grandchildren her copy of what has become perhaps the most famous — and at the same time, the most grimly tragic — Jet magazine issue.

The photos published in that September 1955 issue of Jet showed the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a mere boy of 14 at the time of his murder. Till had been snatched from the home of a relative in Mississippi in the dark of night for the alleged — and it was later revealed, imagined — offense of whistling at a White woman. His brutalized body was retrieved from the Tallahatchie River.

It was an act of enormous heroism for his mother, Mamie Till, to allow the barely recognizable body of her son to be shown in an open casket. It was an act of editorial vision — and courage as well — for the editors of Jet and Ebony (they were owned by the same publisher) to publish images of his body in their magazines. But the impact was enormous and immediate. It led to a huge public outcry and calls for change. Many believe it was a keystone moment that helped ignite the civil rights movement.

Till’s death helped expose the wickedness of the Jim Crow South where any White man could wantonly and willfully take the life of virtually any Black man with impunity. The men accused of killing him were acquitted by an all-White jury but later confessed to the crime in 1956 during an interview with Look magazine in an article titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.” The US Justice Department reopened the Till case in 2004, but there were no indictments and no one was convicted of his murder.

If you don’t know the backstory of Carolyn Bryant or why her death matters, you should. She was the 24-year-old White store clerk who had accused Emmett Till. The story goes that he went into the store to buy some candy and he whistled at her or called her “baby.”

That story, which she later admitted was a lie, caused an innocent young Black teen to die a horrible death. Her lie was believed because she was a White woman. Her lie was believed because she was considered off-limits to Black boys and men. As recently as last year, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to prosecute Bryant for her role in Till’s death.

This is the American history that Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, the Tennessee Legislature and many others do not want to talk about. This is the America we want to hide from our children. Some would even do away with the historical marker placed at the site of Till’s murder — that’s how much they want to deny the racism of America’s past.

Even today, Black people — just as they did in Emmett Till’s — find themselves under assault for simply being Black while walking, sleeping, bird-watching, eating, driving, studying, grocery shopping, worshiping at church or going into a convenience store and being accused of passing a bad $20 bill — as George Floyd was when he was asphyxiated by a police officer’s knee pressed against his neck. But unlike Till’s lynching in the remote backwoods of Mississippi in the dead of night, Floyd’s killing was carried out in broad daylight in a Northern city, as cellphone cameras filmed the entire gruesome spectacle.

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    I’m heading to California next week to bury my grandmother. She died peacefully in her sleep this month at the age of 93. She was the beloved matriarch of our family — a mixed-race girl born in the Jim Crow segregated South.

    Her own grandmother had been a slave who fell in love with and ran away with her slave owner’s son, married him after the Civil War and moved to California, where they had 13 children.

    When I go through her things, the Emmett Till copy of Jet is one of the keepsakes I will ask to keep as her eldest grandchild. One day, I will pass it down to my nieces. Whatever some might say, the next generation still needs to hold on to these reminders of America’s brutal past.