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Carolyn Bryant Donham, the accuser in the Emmett Till case, passes away – the impact of the 1955 murder on civil rights history.


Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused the black teen Emmett Till, who had made inappropriate advances towards her in 1955, has died at the age of 88 in Louisiana, according to a coroner’s report.

Nearly 68 years after Till was kidnapped, brutally tortured, murdered, and then dumped in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River, the case continues to resonate with audiences around the world as it is a blatant example of justice denied.

As a historian of the Civil rights movements in MississippiI quickly learned that most of Mississippi’s civil rights history dates back to the widespread outcry over the Till case in the summer of 1955.

Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed in 1954, a year before his murder.

Emmett in Money, Mississippi

Fourteen-year-old Emmett arrived in Mississippi from Chicago on August 20, 1955, to visit his mother’s family, who shared cotton in the small Delta community of Money.

On the evening of August 24, Emmett and several cousins ​​and neighbors drove the 2.8 miles to Money to buy candy at the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market.

Emmett entered the store alone. He bought 2 cents worth of gum and left. At the door, Emmett let out a loud two-tone wolf whistle aimed at white 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. His cousins ​​were terrified: Emmett had just hit the tripwire of Southern racial fears by flirting with a white woman.

Early on August 28, several men — white and black — took Emmett from his family’s home. Emmett’s badly decomposed and scarred body was discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s uncle could only identify Emmett by a ring he wore that once belonged to Emmett’s father, Louis Till.

Two white men, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, were quickly arrested and later charged with murder. During a five-day trial in September, the two men were found not guilty after a 67-minute deliberation by an all-white, all-male jury.

Several years later, members of the jury confessed to a Florida State University graduate student: Hugh Stephen Whitakerthat they knew the men were guilty but just wouldn’t convict a white man of crimes against a black child.

In 1956, Milam and Bryant sold them “shocking true story” of what happened to Till for US$3,150 to Look magazine. For nearly 50 years, famed journalist William Bradford Huie’s “confession” story in Look served as the final word on the case.

Continued interest and coverage

Confederate newspapers immediately wanted to forget the Till story, ashamed of the backlash caused by Milam and Bryant’s “confession.” Many Northern and Western newspapers have featured on the case long after its closure. The American black press never stopped writing about the case; after all, it was their work helping to track down black eyewitnesses in September 1955 that helped us understand the truth of what actually happened to Emmett Till on August 28, 1955.

Thanks to investigative work by documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp and others, the public has since learned that Milam and Bryant were part of a much larger lynching, none of whom were ever punished.

Today, all the people directly involved in Till’s murder are dead.

A woman stands with two young boys on the steps of a dilapidated looking wooden building.
Carolyn Byant Donham stands with her sons outside the store where she first met Emmett Till.
Bettmann/Getty Images

A case that grew older with Carolyn Bryant Donham

The last 20 years of Bryant Donham’s life were marked by the attempt by private individuals and law enforcement to bring her to justice for the role she played in the kidnapping and murder of Till.

When Bryant Donham was in her 80s and living with relatives in Raleigh, North Carolina, FBI investigators and federal prosecutors reviewed her case and the possibility of prosecuting her for Till’s kidnapping and death. One question was whether Bryant Donham recanted her previous testimony about Till’s advances, saying it was false.

One historian said in 2017 that Bryant Donham told him in a rare interview that the most egregious parts of the story are her and others told about Emmett Till were false.

However, the Justice Department said in 2021 that it could not confirm whether Bryant Donham actually went back on her earlier testimony, and the case was closed.

Then, in 2022, a team of researchers — including two of Till’s relatives — discovered an unserved arrest warrant for Bryant Donham in the basement of a courthouse. This led some legal experts to say that the 1955 document could be a likely basis for prosecuting Bryant Donham for her involvement in Till’s death.

The Mississippi Attorney General said in 2022 that the office had no intention of prosecuting Bryant Donham — though that didn’t stop activists from protesting outside her home that same year.

This was also evident from recently unearthed documents Till didn’t put his hands down on her, nor talking lewdly to her in the store. That was all fabricated as part of the defense’s strategy to argue that the lynching amounted to justifiable homicide. When the presiding judge, Curtis Swango, wouldn’t allow the jury to hear Bryant Donham’s testimonyturned the defense the absurd claim that the body has been taken of the Tallahatchie River was not Till’s.

Over the decades, the Till case has continued to resonate, especially for a nation that continues to experience the all-too-frequent and seemingly unprovoked deaths of young black men. The Till family has had to live with an open wound for 68 years. As Devery Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, has noted, wound will not disappear suddenly with the death of Bryant Donham.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 13, 2018.

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