Carolyn Bryant Donham: White woman whose accusation triggered Emmett Till lynching dies 

Francis Akhalbey April 28, 2023
Carolyn Bryant Donham accused Emmett Till of flirting with her before the Black teen was lynched -- Left photo credit: CBS / 60 Minutes | Right photo via PBS

Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman who accused Emmett Till of flirting with her before the Black teen’s brutal 1955 lynching in Mississippi, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 88, CNN reported. A fact of death letter issued by the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office stated that Donham died in Westlake, Louisiana.

Her passing comes after Till’s family called on authorities to arrest and charge the White woman in connection with the Black teen’s killing after her arrest warrant was found in the basement of a Mississippi court, Face2Face Africa reported last year.

Till was lynched on August 28, 1955, after Donham accused the Black teen of flirting with her at a family store in Money, Mississippi. Four days before his killing, it was rumored that he had flirted with Bryant. This speculation led to two White men kidnapping Till, later beating him, and shooting him dead before disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River.

Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were charged with Till’s murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. Both men, who have since died, confessed to the killing in a paid magazine interview months later. During their trial, Donham also took to the stand and alleged Till grabbed and threatened her. 

Responding to Donham’s death in a statement on Thursday, Malik Shabazz, who is a member of the Black Lawyers for Justice, said the deceased White woman’s legacy “will be one of dishonesty and injustice.”

“Carolyn Bryant’s death brings a conclusion to a painful chapter for the Emmett Till family and for Black people in America. The tragic part about Bryant’s death was that she was never held accountable for her role in the death of young Emmett Till, who is the martyr for the Civil Rights Movement,” the statement added, per CNN.

A Mississippi grand jury initially decided not to indict Donham in 2007, and in August 2021, another grand jury also opted to do the same. Following the announcement, The Associated Press reported that the decision by the grand jury had possibly closed the curtains to an infamous case that set the growing Civil Rights Movement into motion and caused a rallying cry nationwide. 

In a news release, Leflore County District Attorney, Dewayne Richardson, said a Leflore County grand jury arrived at the decision after listening to testimonies from investigators as well as witnesses. 

Richardson also said the jury concluded the evidence that was presented to possibly indict Donham on kidnapping and manslaughter charges in Till’s death was insufficient. The jury’s decision also came after an unserved 1955 charge warrant for Donham was found in the basement of a Mississippi court. 

In December 2021, the Justice Department announced it was closing its re-investigation of the 14-year-old’s lynching. That investigation came after a book that was published in 2017 alleged Donham admitted she lied about Till flirting with her. But during the investigation, Bryant denied that she recanted her testimony in an interview with the FBI

The FBI concluded that “there was insufficient evidence to prove that she lied to the FBI by denying that she recanted her testimony,” ABC News reported.

Responding to Donham’s death in a statement on Thursday, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and the only surviving witness to the teen’s abduction, wrote: “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,” he added.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: April 28, 2023


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