Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose accusations led to the abduction and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., in August 1955, has died at age 88. Before his murder, she accused Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, of flirting with her. His murder helped spark the civil rights movement.
Though officials never charged her with a crime in Till’s lynching, calls for Donham’s arrest continued until her death. A group from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, working with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in 2022, uncovered a 1955 warrant for her arrest, but a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict her last August despite the discovery.
In 1955, then-Leflore County Sheriff George Smith refused to serve the warrant against Donham. “We aren’t going to bother the woman, she’s got two small boys to take care of,” he said at the time.
Jerry Mitchell first reported Donham’s death at Mississippi Today this morning and that she had been diagnosed with cancer. The Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office in Louisiana confirmed to the Mississippi Free Press this morning that Donham had died and provided the Fact of Letter documenting her death. It indicates she died Tuesday at 620 Niel Road in Westlake, La.
After his death, Till’s mother held an open-casket funeral ceremony for her son in Chicago to show the world his unrecognizable face. An all-white jury acquitted J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant, who was Carolyn Bryant’s husband at the time, for Till’s murder.
Both men later confessed to the crime while speaking with Look magazine, which paid $4,000 for the interview. Roy Bryant and his accomplice J.W. Milam died without ever facing justice for their crimes.
Donham’s story has changed several times over the years. In an unpublished 2008 memoir, she claimed that she “tried to protect (Till) by telling Roy that ‘he’s not the one.’” Earlier, in 2004, she told FBI Agent Dale Killinger that the men brought Till to her house after abducting him, but that she “couldn’t have identified him.”
Till’s death has inspired federal legislation. Then-President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2008. The late John Lewis, D-Ga., introduced the bill. It asked the DOJ to investigate and prosecute “violations of criminal, civil rights statutes that occurred not later than December 31, 1969, and resulted in a death.”
In March 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, which Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., introduced. It imposes a 30-year sentence for perpetrators of any hate crime “that results in death or serious bodily injury or that includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.”