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Fact Check: Is Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant Related to the Bryants Involved in Emmett Till’s Murder?


Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant’s “aunts and uncles murdered Emmett Till,” claims a recent comment on the Deep South Voice Facebook page. The third comment on activist Shaun King’s July 12, 2018 tweet thread about the woman who falsely accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, Carolyn Holloway Bryant Donham, repeats the claim. Just a few years ago, USA Today had to issue a correction to note that the “[assertion] that a relative of Gov. Phil Bryant was involved in the murder of Emmett Till” was unsubstantiated after the publication ran an opinion piece that made the claim. A February 2019 Newsone story, though, still claims that Carolyn Holloway Bryant Donham’s “nephew, Phil Bryant, is the governor of Mississippi.”

Bryant, himself, has only issued a mild rebuke of the claim through a spokesperson. With only about 98 hours left in his second term, Deep South Voice saw a new round of these rumors spread on our social media pages in response to two stories we published about the outgoing governor: One about his claim that the election of Mike Espy, a black Democrat, to the US Senate would begin “a thousand years of darkness“; and another about his recent claim that Mississippi “just got out of racism.” I set out to determine for myself the facts about Governor Bryant’s family tree—and whether he was or wasn’t related to the parties involved in the gruesome murder of an innocent child. 

Setting the Scene

Nearly 65 years ago, Emmett Till, a 14-year old boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered while visiting family in the Mississippi Delta. Till had only been in Mississippi for about 3 days when he and his cousin skipped church to meet up with some other teenagers on a quest for candy. That quest would take them to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market where something supposedly occurred that would ultimately lead to the boy’s death and, many believe, help spark the Civil Rights Movement.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has not exactly gone out of his way to distance himself from the State’s racist past.

In the store owned by her husband, Roy Bryant, Sr, Carolyn Donham, then 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant née Holloway, was working by herself that late summer day while her sister-in-law was in the rear of the store watching kids. The exact series of events that occurred after Till entered the market cannot be known; Carolyn Bryant’s story varied wildly at the time, and in the passing years, she has changed or recanted different elements of it, which at times included a claim that the boy “whistled” at her. What we can know for certain is that when Roy Bryant returned from a trip to Texas on August 27, 1955, he got word that something had happened, as evidenced by the aggressive line of questioning he subjected several Black men to at the store. 

Sometime around 2 am on the morning of August 28th, after first kidnapping the wrong kid, Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam were en route to Mose Wright’s house, where they had learned the responsible party was staying on visit from Chicago. Three days later, two kids found Till’s mutilated and water-logged body in the Tallahatchie River where they were fishing. 

Barely a month after Till arrived in Mississippi, a five-day trial by an all-White, all-male jury ended with a 67-minute deliberation resulting in an acquittal for both Bryant and Milam.

After Phil Bryant became Mississippi’s governor in 2011, rumors began to swirl that he was, in fact, related to the woman whose accusations precipitated Emmett Till’s death. His own behavior has done little to quash the rumors. Each flirtation with Neo-Confederate organizations, Confederate Heritage Month Declaration, and failure to give Mississippi’s only Black congressman his due credit has invited a fresh round of rumors about his family history.

Fact, Fib, or Falsehood?

Without further ado, I can say with a high amount of certainty that Governor Phil Bryant is not in any way, shape, form, nor fashion related to Roy Bryant, Sr, Carolyn Donham, nor JW Milam. The Governor personally gives us more than enough reasons to be dissatisfied with his tenure and his handling of issues related to race and our so-called “heritage.” There’s no need to keep peddling this fabrication.

How We Know

I used to examine the various players’ family trees armed with the names of those involved in the case and the names of Governor Bryant’s parents. I scoured through Census records, obituaries from, memorials on, death records, marriage records, wedding and birth announcements, and even user-submitted family trees.

I unearthed several ancestors in both families that fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, discovered Carolyn Donham’s Great-grandfather owned quite a number of slaves, and found out that Roy Bryant and JW Milam were not only half-siblings, but also second cousins. But after pouring over more than 300 documents and connecting the dots between three generations of both Bryant families, the Holloway family, and the Roberts family I couldn’t find a single common familial relation. See the family trees for yourself below.

Click or tap the image and zoom to examine the relationships (or lack thereof).

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