Carolyn Bryant. It’s a name everyone should know.
To know her story is to know why women of color do not have the luxury to just #BelieveWomen without question. To know her name is to know that we live in a world where sexual assault is both real and politically weaponized. To know her name is to know that the boundaries of sexual morality are drawn so that white men are able to claim that all accusations made against them are false, while simultaneously asserting that no accusation made against a person of color go unpunished.
To know her name is to know that communities of color are incapable of forgetting hundreds of years of criminalization under the guise of sexual morality in order to secure solidarity with white feminists.
Carolyn Bryant is why women of color cannot find safety or solidarity under the umbrella of the #MeToo movement. Everyone should know her name.
Carolyn Bryant was a white woman from Mississippi. She managed her husband’s grocery store and was sitting at the counter on a summer day in 1955 when two boys came in to buy some candy. One of the children — a young black boy by the name of Emmett Till — purchased a pack of gum for two cents.
The interaction between the white woman and the black child could not have lasted more than a few innocent moments. But in Jim Crow’s Mississippi, any interaction that a black person had with a white person could produce violent and unexpected consequences. And the most highly scrutinized interactions were between that of a white woman and a black man.
And there was no place more dangerous for a black man to be anywhere near a white woman than in Mississippi in 1955. Interactions between black men and women were criminalized through state and local policies and often enforced in the court of public opinion. This enforcement was often violent, and this violence was rarely punished.
In 1955, a black man could be murdered without legal consequence for as little as whistling at a white woman. This truth was dangerous for all black men, but especially for a young boy named Emmett Till.
Emmett was a black male living with a disability.
He had a speech impediment which made it very difficult for him to pronounce certain sounds and words, especially the “b” sound. Emmett’s mother had taught him to whistle softly to himself before speaking to help him form his words. Words such a “bubble gum” were difficult for him to say, so it is very likely that he whistled before he spoke to Caroline Bryant so that she could understand him more clearly.
So, yes. It is very likely that Emmett Till whistled in the vicinity of a white woman. And black men were not allowed to whistle at white women. This was considered sexual harassment and assault in Mississippi 1955, even though his motives were clearly not sexually violent, or even remotely sexual.
But white Mississippi was hungry for black blood and whispers that a black boy had “wolf-whistled” at Mrs. Bryant began to swirl. These whispers quickly evolved into accusations that he had made aggressive verbal advances towards Mrs. Bryant. And then they escalated into claims that the young black boy buying bubble gum had physically forced himself upon her and justice must be exacted.
Carolyn Bryant escalated the stories herself.
Carolyn Bryant told her husband, the courts, and the world that the young back boy with a speech impediment — the boy that came into her store to buy a 2-cent pack of bubble gum — had tried to sexually assault her.
Carolyn Bryant testified under oath that Emmett had grabbed her hand and began making verbal advances, calling her “baby.” She swore on top of a Mississippi Bible that she pulled her hand away from her assailant and tried to flee his black grasp. She told the courts and the United States that he chased her down and grabbed her by the waist, but she managed to struggle her white body free. She claimed he verbally assaulted her with profanities and unsolicited descriptions of sexual encounters he had engaged in with other white women. And she claimed that it was only when Emmett Till’s cousin grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out the door that the terrifying ordeal ended.
Carolyn Bryant described these events in detail in a segregated court of law in Sumner, Mississippi. Not at a trial where she accused Emmitt Till of the “crimes” committed against her — but in the trial that involved her husband Roy and his brother Milam.
Roy Bryant was outraged when his wife Carolyn told him that a black man had forced himself on her. He demanded harsh and immediate justice. Roy got into his pickup truck and with his wife and brother drove through town, and violently demanded that the black people he encountered along the direct him to Emmett. They finally hunted him down at his uncle’s door in the early hours of the morning where he was staying in a 2-bedroom cabin with 7 other family members.
They burst into the home between 2:00 and 3:30am, with shotguns, and demanded to know where “the little n*****” was. When they found Emmett, they pulled him out of his bed and dragged him out of the small two room cabin where his family stood helpless and in horror.
Emmett was tied up and thrown into Roy’s green pickup. The boy was brutally pistol-whipped as they sped him away further and further from his bed in his Uncle’s home. He was forced into a barn where his 5-foot 4-inch body was tortured, mutilated, and disfigured.
In the name of morality, Roy stripped the young boy naked and beat him unconscious. They gouged one of his dark round eyes out of its socket. Then Roy Bryant shot Emmett Till in the back of the head just above the right ear, and with help from his brother Milam, prepared to dump the child’s body.
For the supposed “crimes” he committed against a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store, the young boy from Chicago was broken, bound to a 70-lb. cotton gin fan with barbed wire and thrown over the side of the Black Bayou Bridge — while his family desperately prayed and waited for him to return home.
White Mississippi had its own court system for black boys accused of speaking to their women. And in this court, white men always believed their white women.
In a segregated courtroom soon after, Roy and his brother Milan would claim that they only meant to scare Emmett. They claimed that they only planned to beat the boy and throw him into the rivers; however, as they were beating him, Emmett began cursing at them. They claimed that the black teenager had said that he was just as good as they were. They claimed that Emmett had the nerve to say that he had sex with other white women. They claimed they were the victims of his verbal assaults — while they bound, beat, and pistol-whipped a child. So they claimed.
Roy and Milam claimed that these were the reasons they decided to murder Emmett Till.
In 1955, Mississippi was still burning. The white men in a white Mississippi Courtroom knew that not only was violence against black people permitted in this space, but it was celebrated. Especially when a white man’s superiority was being upheld and a woman’s purity defended.
The state boasted the highest rate of lynching in the Unites States and the lowest rates of prosecution for violent crimes against black men, women and children. The courtroom that would historically record the story of Carolyn Bryant did not allow white and black people to sit together. And the jury that would decide the fate of Roy and Milan was all white. The seats of the courtroom were packed, and there was little room for justice in the segregated courtroom.
Somehow, though, Emmet Till’s mother managed to take her seat.
She sat in the blacks-only section of a white supremacist court of law and listened as Carolyn Bryant, her husband Roy and brother Milam dragged her child’s name through thick Mississippi mud. She sat there as they formed every word with their white lips as they described how they buckled and broke her son until he drew his last breath. She sat in a segregated courtroom and listened to white people describe why her son deserved to die, and how Roy and Milam performed a service to the community for carrying out the execution.
She sat there as the sheriff in the courtroom greeted her and the other segregated black people present with “Hi, N******!”. She sat there as Carol Bryant, her husband Roy and his brother Milan lied about her son. She sat there as they came up with excuses to explain why Emmett deserved to die and described in detail just how they carried out their patriotic execution.
Emmett’s body wasn’t found until 3 days after the Bryant’s ripped the child with a soft whistle out of his bed at gunpoint. It was bloated from days in the river water and one eye was dislodged from its socket. Mamie Bradley’s son Emmett’s face was mutilated beyond the point of recognition and barbed wire was twisted around his neck. A cotton gin fan was secured to the wire by Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and his brother Milan to anchor Mamie’s son beneath the surface of an offshoot of the Tallahatchie River.
Mamie Bradley listened as they described how they mutilated and murdered her 14-year-old son. She listened as they bragged about it. She sat there as the jury deliberated for 67 minutes and returned with a verdict of “Not Guilty” in the case of the kidnapping, torture and murder of a young black boy that committed the crime of buying a pack of bubble gum from a white woman in the state of Mississippi.
With nothing but an accusation by a white man in defense of a white woman, Emmett Till was handed a life sentence that was carried out by a couple and a community that comfortably used false accusations of sexual immorality to justify the murder of black men and black children.
Mamie Bradley would have to fight to have her son’s body returned to Chicago for burial. She held an open casket funeral so that the world could see what they had done to her son. She could not find words for it herself. She held an open casket funeral for her lynched and mutilated child to show the world what happens when white supremacists make false accusations in Mississippi. She held an open casket so we can see what happens when white people in the United States are allowed to be judge, jury and executioner.
She let everyone see what Mississippi did to her son because innocent until proven guilty was a concept reserved for white people. She let everyone see what Mississippi did to her son in the name of sexual purity and white pride. She let the media record images of the unrecognizable face and body of her child so future generations could see what was done to her son.
And so that we wouldn’t forget.
This is why women of color can’t and shouldn’t accept the demand that all accusers of sexual assault be believed. This is why women of color can’t and shouldn’t demand that the harshest punishments be given to every accusation of harassment ranging from unwanted flirting to pedophilia.
This is why the very white idea that any woman that accuses any man of any kind of unsolicited sexual advances — no matter how benign — should be believed and that that belief should lead to strict punishments is not only unacceptable, but it is downright racist.
White conservative men have spent generations weaponizing sexual assault in such a way that they can simultaneously claim that all accusations of assault against them are fabricated and no accusation of assault made against a person of color can go unpunished. This weaponized exploitation of sexual assault has also carried over into other groups targeted by conservatives including members of the LGBTQ community.
What is and what isn’t considered criminal sexual behavior should not be determined by an organized political network that has made interracial contact, homosexuality, and the basic behaviors of transgendered men and women illegal. The moral path taken by the legal system should not be directed by an organized political network that encourages social rejection and violence against minority communities and uses sexual morality as a political basis from which to do so.
What is considered criminal sexual behavior and how that behavior is punished should not be left to an organized political network that is hungry to turn the very real concerns of sexual assault victims and use them against people and communities. We have to refuse to allow our traumas to be used against us. We have to resist the urge to conflate perfectly normal — even if offensive to some — sexual behavior with harassment, assault, rape, and pedophilia.
This does not in any way mean though that we take the position that women are not to be believed. We must resist the urge to give in to that rhetorical trap, as well. In fact, we must forcefully deny that position interpersonally and through the process of political reform.
Out of every 1000 rapes, 994 accused perpetrators will go free. The current political trend — despite the #MeToo movement — is to legally dismiss almost all claims of assault. The United States court system is saying “We don’t believe women.” And that is unacceptable.
Correction: Not only is it unacceptable, but it scares me more than I can find words for. For myself and for my daughter.
No one should ever say that we should never believe women that are coming forward to find support and justice in the wake of sexual assault. As a survivor, I cannot be more clear in saying it is absolutely vile to assume that sexual assault isn’t real. It is, and I carry the scars with me as a daily reminder.
But it is just as vile to conflate sexual assault with normal adult behavior in order to personally or politically attack a person or group. I understand that it is just as dangerous for us to allow white conservative Christian men and women to define the boundaries of sexual morality and unquestionably answer their calls for justice. I understand that the good guys don’t always wear white. The bad guys don’t always wear black. And being a responsible citizen, advocate and human means doing the difficult work of looking past superficial claims of morality to bring justice to true victims of assault as well as those labeled aggressors for personal and political purposes.
There are countless structural barriers presented to women trying to protect themselves from assault and those seeking justice through the legal system. There is the repeal of federal, state, and local workplace and school protections for women and survivors of rape. There is an allowance of legal and social retaliation against victims that come forward. There are unsympathetic and often accusatory law enforcement officers. There is medical intrusion. There are unprocessed rape kits. There are few lawyers that will take sexual assault cases and even fewer victims that can afford them. There is less than a 1% chance the courts will believe you and that your assailant won’t walk out of the courtroom and into the same parking lot that you do.
There are many reasons that rape victims are silenced and framed as liars in the criminal justice system.
Not one of those reasons means that we forget that sexuality has been used historically to criminalize minority populations. Not one of those reasons suggests that any and all sexualized behavior should be deemed criminal behavior and held to the highest penalties. And not one of those reasons suggests that we, right now, allow white supremacists and right-wing conservatives to weaponize the very real traumas of very real survivors in order to turn the left wing against itself. Not one of those reasons suggests we use the plight of white women to deepen the struggles of black communities.
We have to understand and acknowledge critically and solemnly that both Roy Moore and Carolyn Bryant live on the same continuum. And that we need protection from them both.
Carolyn Bryant told her husband, a court of law and the world that Emmett Till had sexually harassed and assaulted her. Everyone believed her.
In 2008, over 50 years after the lynching of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights efforts that his murder put into motion, Carolyn Bryant admitted that the entire story was a lie. Emmet had never made verbal advances towards her. He never grabbed her hand. He never touched her hip. He never described previous exploitation with white women. The 14-year-old boy had only come into the store to buy a pack of bubble gum.
Carolyn Bryant is currently in her 80’s and living in an undisclosed location where she claims to hold a “tender sorrow” for the pain of Emmett Till’s mother. Her ex-husband and his brother would go on to live free for approximately 30 to 40 years respectively after the murder of Mamie Bradley’s son. Emmett Till was murdered for a Jim Crow crime that he never even committed while buying some gum in a white owned grocery store in 1955.
No, the good guys don’t always wear white, the bad guys don’t always wear black and there is not easy one-size fits all solution to the Bryant-Moore continuum. What there must be in replace of that, though, is an ability to support victims of trauma while preventing that trauma from being used as an excuse to target personal and political adversaries. There is injustice to be found in the unquestioned belief any individual or community that weaponizes sexual assault for their own personal and political gain, just as there is injustice to be found in silencing the voices of true survivors.
Women of color have to reconcile these two positions. We have been calling for white women to deepen the complexity of their arguments and their battle against sexual assault and for women’s rights. We have been asking for the white led #MeToo movement to hear our stories of trauma at both ends of the spectrum and use this information to affect real change. We’ve been warning them about the dangers of learning from the histories of women and men of color. We’ve been telling them that their call for unquestioned punishment for violations of false morality can and will be used against us. We have been trying to warn them that it’s being used against us right now.
It’s about time they believed us.
To learn more about Dr. GS Potter and the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy (SIIP), visit: http://strategycampsite.org/v2/
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