Posted on July 14, 2022

Carolyn Bryant Donham’s Unpublished Memoir Surfaces

Stacey Patton, NewsOne, July 14, 2022

“It is my fervent desire that my story will shed light on what happened, at least as I knew and remembered it, and illuminate my small part in this tragedy.”

So writes Carolyn Bryant Donham — in an unpublished memoir that has just come to light — about the abduction and brutal racist murder of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Black boy in 1955 Mississippi. Hers was no “small part” in the case: Her false accusation that Till made lewd comments, grabbed her and whistled at her cannot be separated from his lynching. The infamous photo of Till’s disfigured face that was published nationally in JET Magazine traumatized a generation of Black youth and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.


The 100-page document titled, “I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle,” was dictated to her daughter-in-law in 2008 and 2009. NewsOne has obtained a copy through an anonymous source on the condition their identity is not revealed. It represents the first time that Donham, who is now 88 and whose whereabouts are publicly unknown, has spoken openly about the case. She describes a sequence of events in which she is repeatedly victimized: by a sexual assault; and then over decades by her ex-husband Roy Bryant; threatening phone calls and letters from unknown sources; by a series of personal losses; and by news media pestering her.


A recent discovery of an unserved 1955 warrant has renewed calls for Dunham’s arrest. The warrant, which charged her along with her late husband and his half-brother John W. Milam with kidnap, was found last month in the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi. The two white men, who were subsequently tried and acquitted by an all-white jury, then confessed to their crimes in a paid interview with Look magazine. Double-jeopardy laws prevented them from being tried again, and the Till case remained an open homicide until 2004 when the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the North District of Mississippi opened an investigation into Till’s murder.

Though Donham was listed on the original warrant as “Mrs. Roy Bryant,” she was never arrested by law enforcement officials, who declined to do so because she was a young mother.


Since the original warrant has not expired and there is no statute of limitations on kidnapping, activists along with relatives of Till and their attorney Jaribu Hill have been pressing law enforcement officials to arrest and charge Donham. District Attorney DeWayne Richardson, who would oversee prosecuting Donham in the Fourth Circuit Court District of Mississippi, has remained silent.


Till’s family members say the Mississippi authorities are continuing to protect Donham because she is an elderly white woman. Meanwhile, activists and protestors last weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina stormed a senior-citizens apartment building looking for her and demanding that she come out and “face your demons.”


Donham was in her early 70s when she pulled up a chair and sipped coffee while dictating her memories to her daughter-in-law Marsha. “These are my words and my story,” she writes. “Those terrible days scarred me, and it was hard to heal.”

Despite decades of silence, Donham has clearly stayed abreast of the continuing discussions surrounding Till’s murder. She gives a litany of ways how writers have misrepresented her and gotten facts about her life wrong: “Lies and half-truths appeared in thousands of news stories, and then made their way into books, plays, movies, and novels. As technology progressed, they made the rounds of the Internet.”


After falling in love at age 14 to Roy Bryant, they married, gave birth to their first two sons, and moves to Money, Mississippi in 1953. She describes the store owned by the Bryants, which doubled as their home, as a box with not much room to maneuver around. Most of their customers were Black sharecroppers who purchased goods on store credit. The front porch was always full of people playing checkers with bottle caps.

Wednesday, August 24, 1955, was a slow day in the store. At about 8 p.m., Donham writes, there were nine young people on the porch. Her sister-in-law and children were in the back living area of the building.

“The door opened and a young black man, who appeared to me to be in his late teens or early twenties entered the store,” she writes on page 30.

That man was 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Till asked for candy. Instead of paying, Donham claims that he grabbed her hand, cornered her when she tried to get away, grabbed her hips and made lewd remarks.

“What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it? You needn’t be afraid of me, I’ve f—ked white women before,” she writes.


Donham, who claims she was scared “half to death and felt weak with fear,” writes that her sister-in-law couldn’t hear her screams because they were drowned out by the television, the kids playing, and dinner being cooked for their families in the nearby back kitchen. None of the nine people on the porch heard her screams either.


When her husband returned home, days after the store incident, Donham writes, she attempted to hide the assault from him to protect the Black boy who she saw as a man. But in a small rural town, word spread fast.

In two short chapters titled, “The Nightmare Begins,” and “The Nightmare Continues,” Donham describes the growing tension between her and her husband. What she writes in the memoir does not give the same account that she had told authorities in the past. But she does say that Till was brought to her by her husband and Milam for identification – something that a grand jury has never heard.


She writes: “We got him, but we want to be sure it’s him,” her husband said to her as he and two other men walked into the store holding Till by his arms.

When they asked, “Is that him?” she said no.

“You have the wrong person, it’s NOT him. Take him home, please take him home,” she writes she told them.

In a bizarre moment, she claims that Till then outed himself.

“To my utter disbelief, the young man flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect,” she writes.


Donham’s narrative continues with details about the discovery of Till’s body, the arrests of her husband and his half-brother, her awareness of a warrant for her arrest and the stress of constantly moving around to escape harassment. When the not-guilty verdict was reached by the all-white jury, she writes, “we breathed a sigh of relief and joy. We hugged each other and smiles were from ear to ear.”

And then, in the courtroom, she sneaked a look at Till’s heartbroken mother.  “I turned my head slightly and caught a glimpse of Mamie Bradley’s face, but Roy snatched my arm and told me to turn back around to stop looking back at her.”

The men still faced kidnapping charges in Leflore County. Donham said she was shocked when the grand jury returned a no-bill on the charge, because of a lack of enough evidence.

“How in the world could they have come to that conclusion?” she asked.


At multiple junctures in the story, Donham describes her ache for Till’s mother and makes a show of empathizing with her by equating the loss of her adult son who died from a lung illness with the grieving Black mother’s loss.  At her son’s funeral, Donham’s thoughts turn to Till’s mother.


On the last page of the memoir, Donham writes, “I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett. He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation. Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no! Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss [of] his life. I paid dearly with an altered life.”