The white woman who accused Black teen Emmett Till of sexually harassing her before he was savagely beaten and murdered has died.
Carolyn Bryant Donham died Tuesday while in hospice care in Westlake, Louisiana, according to the Associated Press, citing the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office. She was 88 years old.
Malik Shabazz, National Director of Black Lawyers for Justice, told CNN on Thursday that Donham’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 a martyr for the Civil Rights Movement,” Shabazz said.
In August 1955, Donham was a 21-year-old shopkeeper in Money, Mississippi, when she accused the 14-year-old of whistling at her at her family’s grocery store.
Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam would later pull the young teenager from his bed and order him into the back of a pickup truck, where he would be beaten before being shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. A few days later, Till’s mutilated body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River, held down by a metal fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Bryant and Milam went to trial, where Donham testified that Till grabbed and verbally threatened her. The two men were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. In a 1956 interview with Look magazine, Milam, who died in 1980, and Bryant, who died in 1994, admitted to committing the murder.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, had an open casket at her son’s funeral so the world could see what was done to her only child. The Black Press published photos of Till’s mutilated body taken at his funeral in Chicago, which caused global outrage. His murder and the acquittal of his killers became a catalyst of the civil rights movement in America.
She reportedly stated in a 2008 interview with historian Timothy B. Wilson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, that Till never touched or made sexual attempts toward her. She reiterated similar claims in a 2017 interview.
But Donham reiterated her prior accusations in her 109-page unpublished memoir; I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle, which The Associated Press obtained in July 2022. However, she said that she tried to talk her husband out of hurting Till.
In her memoir, which she reportedly intended to remain under wraps until 2036, Donham claims that, like Till, she was a victim who “paid dearly with an altered life” for his murder.
In August 2022, a grand jury declined to indict Donham on kidnapping and manslaughter charges for her role in Till’s death due to what was cited as insufficient evidence.
According to CNN, The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and the last living witness to the abduction, said Thursday after Donham’s death: “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 said.