Carolyn Bryant Donham’s legacy is “one of dishonesty and injustice” that “verifies that Mississippi coddles and protects white supremacy,” a lawyer for Emmett Till’s cousin Priscilla Sterling said in a statement after news of her death broke on Thursday.
Sterling filed a federal lawsuit in February attempting to force the Leflore County sheriff to enforce an unserved arrest warrant for Donham over the abduction of Till, who was 14 when her husband and another white man kidnapped and lynched him in August 1955 after she claimed he whistled at her.
Donham’s death ended any possibility that anyone involved in Till’s racist lynching would ever face justice; an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam for the murder in September 1955. She stood by her husband during the trial, later admitting that her husband brought Till to her at their house before killing him. Both men later admitted to the slaying in a paid interview with Look magazine but died free men without ever facing accountability for the murder.
After the lynching in Money, Miss., and the justice system’s failures, Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley made his death a rallying cry that helped propel the civil rights movement. Last year, a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Donham after two Till family members and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation found the warrant in a courthouse basement.
News of Donham’s death drew reactions from across the nation, including from Till’s family members, organizations devoted to fighting racial injustice and even the White House.
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., a cousin who counted Emmett Till as a childhood best friend, expressed sympathy to Donham’s family on Thursday.
“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”
The Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute, an Illinois-based social justice organization that includes Emmett Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon on its board, issued a statement to “(note) the death of Carolyn Bryant, and wish mercy on her soul, even as we regret that she never took responsibility for her role in the brutal 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till.”
“While the world saw the horrors of racism in Emmett’s murder, the real consequences of hatred, what the world will never now see is remorse or responsibility for his death. She never told the truth,” Till Institute Executive Director Dr. Marvel Parker said in Thursday’s statement. “She will be lying from the grave in the words of her memoir.”
Till Institute President Christopher Benson said in the statement that “Mamie Till Mobley mined her grief for a mission in life and served as a role model of activism for so many other Black mothers who sadly have had to face the tragic loss of too many sons to racial violence.”
“We will continue our work at the Till Institute to educate people around the world about what Emmett Till’s life, and Mother Mobley’s work, meant to racial healing and freedom,” he continued.
Sumner, Miss.-based Emmett Till Interpretive Center Executive Director Patrick Weems also hailed Mamie Till-Mobley, who died in 2003, for her efforts in the aftermath of her son’s murder.
“Mamie Till-Mobley, through her grief, wanted to ‘let the world see’ what happened to her 14-year-old son Emmett Till. The woman whose lies in 1955 put the torture of Emmett in motion died today,” he said. “She continued to uphold these lies and to protect the murderers until her death. While the world saw the horrors of racism, and the real consequences of hatred, what the world will never see is remorse or responsibility for Emmett’s death. … Since we will never see justice through the criminal justice system, we will continue working toward restorative justice for the memory of Emmett Till and for the people of the Mississippi Delta.”
Asked about Carolyn Bryant’s death at a White House press briefing on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “President Biden was very proud to sign the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law this past spring.” That law made lynching a federal hate crime.
“So, the White House has worked hard to honor the legacy of Emmett Till and—and his mom. We will continue that work alongside the brave leaders across our country, his family, civil rights leaders, continuing the fight against racial hatred,” she said. “And that’s what the American people should know: that the President is committed—committed to dealing with this crisis that we see in front of us and dealing with this racial hatred that we see across the country.”