Posted on April 28, 2023

White Woman Whose Claim Caused Emmett Till Murder Has Died

Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press, April 27, 2023

The white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of whistling at and accosting her in Mississippi in 1955 — causing his lynching, which galvanized a generation of activists to rise up in the Civil Rights Movement — has died at 88.

Carolyn Bryant Donham died in hospice care Tuesday night in Westlake, Louisiana, according to a death report filed Thursday in the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office.

Her death marks the last chance for anyone to be held accountable for the kidnapping and murder that shocked the world.


Evidence indicates a woman identified Till to Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, who killed the teenager. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men in the killing, but the men later confessed in an interview with Look magazine.

When Till disappeared in Mississippi, Ollie Gordon — one of Till’s cousins — was 7 years old and living in the Chicago home with Till’s mother and family. Gordon told The Associated Press on Thursday that in the days after he went missing, the home was full of fear, because people knew there was a strong likelihood he had been killed.

Gordon said she had mixed emotions about Donham’s death.

“She was never tried in the court of man,” Gordon said. “But I think she was judged by God, and his wrath is more punitive than any judgment or penalty she could have gotten in a courtroom. I don’t think she had a pleasant or happy life.”


White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that President Joe Biden was proud to sign the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act last year to make lynching a federal crime.

“The president is committed to … dealing with racial hatred,” Jean-Pierre said.

In an unpublished memoir obtained by The AP in 2022, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to Till. Historian and author Timothy Tyson of Durham, North Carolina, provided a copy of the 99-page manuscript, “I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle,” to AP. {snip}


Tyson said in 2022 that he decided to release the memoir to news outlets after some of Till’s relatives and other people doing research at the Leflore County, Mississippi, courthouse in June 2022 found an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges that was issued for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” in 1955 but never served.


Also last year, members of the New Black Panther Party and other activists began showing up at addresses associated with Donham, including in North Carolina and Kentucky. They were there to serve unofficial “warrants” for her arrest and trial.

Weeks after the unserved arrest warrant was found, the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said there was no new evidence to pursue a criminal case against Donham. In August, a district attorney said a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Donham.

Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, filed a federal lawsuit against the current Leflore County Sheriff, Ricky Banks, on Feb. 7, seeking to compel him to serve the 1955 warrant on Donham. In a response April 13, Banks’ attorney said there was no point serving the warrant because the grand jury did not indict Donham last year.