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Play Gives Woman At The Center Of Emmett Till's Murder Case A Voice


On this day in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman in the tiny hamlet of Money, Miss. That woman, Carolyn Bryant, withdrew into obscurity for decades. Now her story's being re-examined by two artists. And Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Emmett Till's abduction, torture and death remain one of the country's most haunting race crimes. At his mother's insistence, Till's mutilated body lay in an open casket in his home church in Chicago. The men who were acquitted of killing him are both long dead. The woman whose accusal sparked the murder is now in her 80s living quietly in an undisclosed location.

Director Nataki Garrett and actor Andrea LeBlanc had worked together on several projects when they were students at the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, in the early 2000s. Back in 2007, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were beginning to run for president. That started Garrett, who is African-American, thinking.

NATAKI GARRETT: I got this crazy idea in my head. I wondered what it's like for Carolyn Bryant at the dawn of such great change.

BATES: Bryant had never discussed her part in Emmett Till's death. Her husband and brother-in-law were acquitted of Till's murder, a murder they confessed to a year later in Look magazine. But she never spoke of Till or the trial. That intrigued Nataki Garrett.

GARRETT: Something about her silence allows Emmett Till to continue to be brutalized.

BATES: Then-Carolyn Bryant, now Donham - she is twice divorced - broke her silence. In 2007, she spoke to Duke University research scholar Timothy Tyson for what would be his 2017 best-selling book "The Blood Of Emmett Till." In it, she admitted for the first time that she'd lied about the extent of her interaction with Till. The 14-year-old had not grabbed her or whispered sexual obscenities to her. In a Duke video, Tyson recalled the moment.


TIMOTHY TYSON: The staunchest thing she said - she said, nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.

BATES: That belated admission was the catalyst for the Carolyn Bryant Project, a multimedia work Nataki Garrett and Andrea LeBlanc created in cooperation with CalArts Center for New Performance. Garrett directed. LeBlanc played Carolyn Bryant. Andrea LeBlanc is a former Mardi Gras queen. She says she understands Carolyn Bryant's reticence. Bryant was a young housewife with a husband who sometimes abused her.

ANDREA LEBLANC: What she probably had to endure, I do have some empathy for her for sure. And I think it's interesting that she held onto the silence for as long as she did.

BATES: LeBlanc says in the South, white women were held to certain standards, even poor ones like Bryant. In the play, LeBlanc as Bryant explains the ideal a woman should strive to meet.


LEBLANC: She'd never use language that one does not use. She'd never feel trapped in her own life. And she knows how to remain silent.

BATES: Both Nataki Garrett and Andrea LeBlanc wanted their play to force their audience to think about race in their own lives. Garrett said she knows racism doesn't begin south of the Mason-Dixon line.

GARRETT: The first time the N-word was used against me violently was in California. I lived in the South for several years and never heard it violently.

BATES: Andrea LeBlanc hopes their look at Carolyn Bryant will inspire some introspection.

LEBLANC: I certainly also hope doing a piece like this in Los Angeles that Carolyn Bryant is not easily written off as just a southern female we can say that was her and not see some of ourselves in her.

BATES: Because that urge to avoid blame? Leblanc says we all have it. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HALIFAX PIER'S "CHANCE TO LEAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.