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Federal lawsuit seeks to compel Mississippi sheriff to serve arrest warrant in 1955 lynching of Emmett Till

Carolyn Bryant, left, has a warrant for her arrest in the kidnapping of Emmett Till, brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955. (AP Photos)

Carolyn Bryant, left, has a warrant for her arrest in the kidnapping of Emmett Till, brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955. (AP Photos)

A relative of Emmett Till, the Black teenager who was kidnapped and lynched after being accused of offending a white woman in 1955, has filed a lawsuit to compel a sheriff in Mississippi to serve an arrest warrant on the woman who made the false accusation that led to the killing.

Priscilla Sterling, the cousin of Till, filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Mississippi on Feb. 7 seeking to compel Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks to serve an arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Bryant Donham.

“The pain and suffering of the Till family never go away, particularly because no one has ever been held accountable for the brutal murder of my cousin Emmett Till,” Sterling said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “We shall not rest until Carolyn Bryant is brought to complete justice in Mississippi.”

Sterling and others are set this week to appeal to the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen their investigation into the prosecution of Carolyn Bryant. They plan on lobbying Congress as well about prosecuting her.

The lawsuit alleges authorities engaged in racially selective enforcement of the law and that Banks and Leflore County “systematically avoided law enforcement in cases when the victim is Black, and the perpetrator is white,” attorney Malik Shabazz said in a statement.

A secretary for Banks said Tuesday the sheriff will have no comment on the matter. Donham, now 89, has not commented publicly on calls for her prosecution, according to The Associated Press.

The lawsuit summarizes the horrific incidents from 1955.

Till, 14, was kidnapped on Aug. 28, 1955, while visiting his family in Mississippi. He was shot in the head, stripped naked, had a cotton gin fan wrapped around his neck with barbed wire, and was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His body was found three days later.

An arrest warrant was issued for J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant, and Carolyn Bryant, but the Leflore County Sheriff said on the warrant that Carolyn Bryant was not arrested because she was not located in the county at the time, court documents said.

“Carolyn Bryant was at the trial court in Leflore County during the trial, yet she was never served with the warrant nor arrested,” court documents said.

The lawsuit alleges that if it weren’t for Carolyn Bryant falsely claiming to her husband that Till had assaulted her, Till would not have been murdered.

“It was Carolyn Bryant’s lie that sent Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam into a rage, which resulted in the mutilation of Emmett Till’s body into an unrecognizable condition,” court documents said. “The Leflore County Sheriff is complicit in the trio’s escape from justice even though both Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam admitted to the crime.”

Roy Bryant and Milam were acquitted. They both have since died.

Renewed interest in the murder came about in June 2022 when a warrant for Carolyn Bryant’s arrest was found in the Leflore County Courthouse, an attorney for Till’s relatives said.

Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was part of the team that discovered the warrant.

“So, as an effort to try to find that warrant and with the hopes of it being executed properly, that we could have full accountability, particularly for those that are living and that was a part of the abduction, the kidnapping, and lynching of Emmett Lewis Till,” she told MSNBC before the lawsuit was filed.

“We, to our knowledge, know that Carolyn Bryant Donham was the last living known accomplice.”

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