By her own telling, Mississippi authorities provided Carolyn Bryant Donham with preferential treatment rather than prosecution after her encounter with Emmett Till led to the lynching of the Black teenager in the summer of 1955.
Instead of arresting Donham on a warrant that accused her of kidnapping days after Till’s abduction, an officer passed along word that relatives would take her and her two young sons away from home amid a rising furor over the case, Donham said in a 2008 memoir made public last month. The sheriff would later claim Donham, 21 at the time, could not be located for arrest.
Once her husband and his half-brother were jailed on murder charges in Till’s death, she said in the unpublished manuscript, two men with the sheriff’s office drove her and her sister-in-law to the lockup for a relaxed visit outside their cell and even ferried the women back home. Later, before their murder trial, the men somehow were allowed to attend a family dinner without guards, she said.
“I was shocked! How in the world were they released from jail to come to eat supper with us? I didn’t see who dropped them off or picked them up to return them to jail, but we had a wonderful evening together,” Donham recalled in the memoir, written by her daughter-in-law based on the older woman’s words.
Nearly 70 years later, Donham’s retelling of the days surrounding Till’s abduction and lynching stokes fresh frustration among relatives of Till and activists pushing for Donham’s prosecution, particularly now that a Mississippi grand jury has decided against charging her with kidnapping in his abduction or manslaughter in his death.
For them, the revelations also raise questions about whether Donham, now 88, is still being protected despite what they see as new evidence against her.
Memoir creates a stir
Carolyn Donham has rarely commented publicly on the Till case, and she has not said anything publicly about the recent decision against new charges. That’s why her memoir — made public by a historian who said he obtained it during an interview years ago — created such a stir when it was released a few weeks ago. The decision not to indict her followed media reports with details of the document, but it’s unclear whether grand jurors considered contents of the autobiography.
In the 99-page memoir, Donham said Till, 14 and visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago, walked into the family-owned store where she was minding the counter on Aug. 24, 1955. Neither husband Roy Bryant nor his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were around that day — it was just her and Till, who also went by the family nickname of “Bobo.”
In the account, Donham repeats her testimony from the murder trial that Till grabbed her and made lewd comments. He also whistled, she said, in the only part of her story backed up by Till cousin and witness Wheeler Parker Jr. during an interview with The Associated Press.
Evidence indicated Till was abducted at gunpoint days later by two armed white men, and a woman likely identified the youth for them. While Donham denied in the memoir identifying Till and says she instead tried to help him, she was named in a kidnapping warrant along with Bryant and Milam. Donham was never arrested, despite police knowing where she was located at least part of the time.
For a period, Donham said, she was spirited away with the knowledge of officers and “shuffled” between homes by the Bryant family. Then, with Donham in the courtroom, the two men were tried and acquitted in Till’s murder. The kidnapping charges were dropped later, and no one has been charged or tried since.
Following their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the abduction and killing in an interview with Look magazine.
In the memoir, Donham said she did not even know there was a warrant for her arrest until an FBI agent told her during a renewed probe decades later.
The warrant sat unknown and unseen in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse until June, when members of the Till family and others found it during a search. At the time of the killing, Donham wrote, “they didn’t even tell me there was a warrant.”
“I was never arrested or charged with anything,” she said.
The nagging question for some is, why not?
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker and activist who helped find the warrant, believes the decision against indicting Donham lies not with the grand jurors who voted against new charges but with a system that goes back generations.
Mississippi law enforcement, which was all-white at the time of the killing, allowed Donham to avoid justice in a misguided quest to protect “white womanhood,” he said, and that same veil is covering her now.
“Chivalrous impulse allowed this woman to go untouched for 67 years,” said Beauchamp, who released the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” in 2005 and helped write and produce the upcoming movie “Till,” a drama set to premiere in October.
But in announcing a Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to indict Donham, District Attorney Dewayne Richardson on Tuesday cited neither race nor womanhood nor anything else but evidence. Members of the panel were presented with testimony from witnesses who told about the investigation of Till’s killing from 2004 until now, he said in a statement.
“After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from witnesses with direct knowledge about this case and the investigators that investigated this case, the Grand Jury determined that there was not sufficient evidence to indict Donham,” said Richardson, who is Black.
Members of the Till family weren’t pleased with the decision. Yet the Rev. Wheeler Parker of Chicago, a Till cousin who was with the youth the night he was abducted from a family home, sounded a conciliatory tone about the failure to obtain an indictment, a decision that he called “unfortunate, but predictable.”
“The state of Mississippi assured me and my family that they would leave no stone unturned in the fight for justice for my cousin, Emmett. They kept their promise by bringing this latest piece of evidence before the grand jury,” he said.
Expressing appreciation for the prosecutor’s efforts, Parker said one person alone “cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day.”
Pushing for prosecution
It’s unclear whether a grand jury will ever again hold the fate of Carolyn Donham in its hands.
At least three investigations have ended without charges in less than 20 years, including a Justice Department review that was closed without prosecution in December. Bryant and Milam died decades ago, and other associates believed by some to have been involved also are dead. Donham is the only person known to still face the risk of arrest.
The Till family and others have promised to keep pushing for someone to prosecute Donham, and additional witnesses could still be alive, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the Till case in a probe that ended without an indictment on a manslaughter charge in 2007.
“There’s still a possibility that there is other evidence out there,” Killinger said in an interview.
Perhaps, but it’s unclear whether anyone with a badge is looking for it. The Justice Department has not given any indication it would reopen the case, and the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch cited the Justice Department’s decision in saying no prosecution was planned even before Richardson announced that the grand jury had decided against charges.
In her memoir, Donham denied doing anything to get Till killed and expressed sorrow for his family’s pain. She portrayed herself as another victim of the horrible crime, as someone who quit trusting strangers and has been hounded by the media for decades.
For some, enough is enough.
“Donham may not have paid the price that some wanted her to pay, but she has suffered for what happened to Till. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest with themselves. It is time to let her be,” The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper in Leflore County said in an editorial after the grand jury decision was announced.
To Ollie Gordon, another one of Till’s cousins, some justice may have been served even without anyone being convicted in the killing.
“Ms. Donham has not gone to jail. But in many ways, I don’t think she’s had a pleasant life. I think each day she wakes up, she has to face the atrocities that have come because of her actions,” Gordon said.