(Lynchings used to start with a MeToo moment)
In 1955, in rural Mississippi, Emmett Till was accused of whistling and staring at a white woman -Carolyn Bryant Donham. Subsequently, Emmett was abducted in the dead of night and driven off to be lynched. After he was tortured and shot in the head, his body was weighted, tied with barbed wire and dumped in a river. It was a lonely and horrific death and the horror of the killing echoes down the years.
In spite of overwhelming evidence of their guilt, an all-white jury acquitted John W Millam and his half-brother Roy Bryant of the brutal murder of Emmett Till. Incredibly, after the case, the two boasted of committing the crime and even earned money from a magazine for telling their story.
While the story has focussed chiefly on the two men who committed the murder, another person who was involved has escaped scrutiny. Until recently that is. Carolyn Bryant Donham made the accusation and pointed out Emmett to his eventual killers. Some witnesses reported that three people were present when Emmett was abducted and the third had a lighter voice. According to some, that person was Carolyn. Other witnesses reported that Carolyn admitted exaggerating or even making up her claims about Emmett Till staring and whistling at her. Indeed, accusations by white women were a common factor in the lynchings of black men of which there were five hundred in Mississippi alone.
It seems that there was a warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Donham but the Leflore County sheriff ‘did not want to ‘bother’ the woman since she had two young children to care for.’ Yet another example of women receiving a lighter touch than men when it comes to law enforcement. That warrant from the 1950s was recently found and despite Carolyn Donham being still alive, the case has just been closed. Although Carolyn can not be tried in a court of law now, she could do the world a favour and give an open an honest account of the events leading up to the death of Emmett Till.
There are some important lessons to be drawn from this case for this day and age.
It seems to me that ‘progressive’ news outlets such as the Guardian and the Independent have given the recent discovery of an arrest warrant for Carolyn Donham less coverage than more ‘right-wing’ socially conservative outlets such as the Daily Telegraph (here) or the Daily Mail (here). I suspect that this was because the story conflicted with their narrative of universal female victimhood. Also, the idea that some women can use false accusations as a tool to attack men is unpalatable to those outlets.
The advice that Emmett’s mother Maddie gave him before he left Chicago for Mississippi seems even more chilling today, ‘If you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head, don’t even look at her.’ This seems eerily similar to the notices on the London Underground, directed at men, advising them that staring is a form of sexual harassment. It seems that they too should drop their heads and look at the ground.
Sexual assault charges on American University campuses are investigated according to a much lower standard than is applicable in Civil Courts. This has meant that male students have lost their right to due process and the mere accusation of wrongdoing can derail a person’s entire college education. This erosion of due process has been justified by the claim that women seldom make false accusations, even though evidence for this claim is sorely lacking. I recommend an account in The Atlantic, written Emily Yoffe (here), for a more detailed account of this fiasco than I can give here. Emily Yoffe in another article in The Atlantic (here) also presented evidence that this injustice weighs more heavily upon male students who happen to be black. They may no longer face lynching but their university education and their planned career can be terminated by an unsubstantiated accusation. Perhaps we haven’t moved on since 1955 as much as we like to think.
Finally, perhaps there are some similarities between this case and the recent murder in the UK of 13-year-old Olly Stephens by two older boys. Olly was lured to his death by a 14-year-old female accomplice who was no innocent bystander. She claimed to be “excited” that one of the boys planned to ‘bang (hit) him and pattern (humiliate) him and shit’. The boys were properly tried for murder and the girl was convicted of manslaughter.
There is no doubt that men are more violent than women, however, the role of women and girls as accomplices and even instigators of violence is under-recognised and under-researched.