The White woman that accused Emmett Till and caused his brutal lynching in 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham, died this Tuesday in Westlake, Louisiana at 88 years old.
Donham accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her on the streets of Money in 1955. This accusation led to Roy Bryant, Donham’s husband at the time, and J.W. Milam removing Till from his bed and home and forcing him into a truck. The men took Till to his final destination where he was brutally beaten and shot in the head before being dumped in the Tallahatchie River. Both men were tried in front of an all-White jury and acquitted of the murder. During the trial, Carolyn Donham testified that Till had grabbed her and verbally threatened her.
Both men later admitted to the ruthless murder just a year later for a magazine interview in 1956. J.W. Milam died in 1980 while Roy Bryant lived nearly two decades longer, passing in 1994.
Donham was never truly held accountable for the role she played in the death of Emmett Till. In 2007 the case was brought back up to the Mississippi grand jury, which declined to indict Carolyn Donham on any charges. Just a year after the grandy jury took another look at the case, Donham told an professor Timothy Tyson that part of her testimony was false. Her testimony in 1955 included Emmett Till grabbing her by the hand and waist whilst saying that he had been with “White women before.” In her 2008 interview with Tyson, Donham said “that part’s not true.”
This discrepancy was brought to the attention of the court systems, but ultimately the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division was unable to prove that Donham had lied on the stand. Donham unwaveringly denied retracting her testimony when asked by investigators. In 2022, there were attempts to indict Donham yet again for her involvement in Till’s murder, but the Grand Jury declined to pursue indictment due to insufficient evidence.
Emmett Till’s cousin, Rev. Wheller Parker Jr., is the last living witness to the abduction. After hearing of Donham’s death on Thursday, Rev. Parker made a powerful statement saying, “Our hearts go out to the family of Carolyn Bryant Donham. As a person of faith for more than 60 years, I recognize that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her. Even though no one now will be held to account for the death of my cousin and best friend, it is up to all of us to be accountable to the challenges we still face in overcoming racial injustice.”