Carolyn Bryant Donham, the young lady in 1955 who accused Black teenager Emmett Louis Till of whistling and making improper advances towards her before he was lynched in Mississippi, has died.
Reacting to the news, many critics argue that the inability of the American and international justice system to bring her to book, even after confessing to lying against Emmett Till, reveals that racism is alive and well.
In September 2020, The African Exponent published an article that depicts how the story of Emmett Till raises enormous concerns about the harsh realities Black people face, not only in the American society, but across the globe.
The publication was made following the announcement on September 9, 2020, 65 years after the terrible event, that Emmett Till’s childhood home was granted preliminary landmark status in the United States of America. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks granted preliminary landmark status to the home of Emmett Till at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. in Woodlawn.
The home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence in Woodlawn is where the teen lived before the trip Down South that ended with his brutal lynching on August 28, 1955. But observers and many socio-political commentators termed the landmark status’ decision a bittersweet milestone in the years-long journey of preservationists and the Till family.
As Always, The Story of Emmett Till Stirs Mixed Reactions
Again, many have claimed that the death of Carolyn Bryant brings mixed emotions. Ollie Gordon — one of Till’s cousins — who was seven years old and living in the Chicago home with Till’s mother and family at the time of Till’s death, told reporters that in the days following when he went missing, the home was full of fear because people knew there was a strong likelihood he had been killed.
“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 judgement or penalty she could have gotten in a courtroom. I don’t think she had a pleasant or happy life.”
Parker is the last living witness to Till’s abduction. He and Till were staying at an uncle’s home in Mississippi when Till was taken in the dark of night. Speaking to newsmen earlier today after the announcement of Carolyn Bryant Donham’s death, he said his heart goes out to 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,” Parker 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.”
Critics across the globe who have taken to social media and other online platforms have said that the decision by a grand jury not to indict a woman whose accusations set off Emmett Till’s killing remains a case of concern.
Reacting to the news of Carolyn Bryant Donham’s death, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told newsmen that last year, President Joe Biden was proud to sign the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act to make lynching a federal crime. “The president is committed to … dealing with racial hatred,” Jean-Pierre said.
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 a kidnapping and brutal murder that shocked the world.
A Grand Crime against Humanity ignored by a Grand Justice System
In August 1955, Till had travelled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. Donham — then 21 and named Carolyn Bryant — accused him of making improper advances on her at a grocery store where she was working in the small community of Money. The Rev. Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till who was there, has said Till whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi’s racist social codes of the era.
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.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in their hometown of Chicago so the world could see her 14-year-old son’s mutilated body, which was pulled from a river in Mississippi. Jet magazine published photos.
Donham Had an Unpublished Memoir
In an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press in 2022, Donham said she was unaware of what would happen to Till.
The contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled “I am More Than A Wolf Whistle,” were first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Historian and author Timothy Tyson of Durham, North Carolina, who said he obtained a copy from Donham while interviewing her in 2008, provided a copy to the AP.
Tyson had placed the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the agreement that it not be made public for decades, though he said he gave it to the FBI during an investigation the agency concluded in 2021. He said he decided to make it public 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.
Tyson said in a statement Thursday that Donham’s precise role in the killing of Till remains murky, but it’s clear she was involved.
“It has comforted America to see this as merely a story of monsters, her among them,” Tyson said. “What this narrative keeps us from seeing is the monstrous social order that cared nothing for the life of Emmett Till nor thousands more like him. Neither the federal government nor the government of Mississippi did anything to prevent or punish this murder. Condemning what Donham did is easier than confronting what America was — and is.”
Activists Demanded Criminal Charges Against Donham
Last year, members of the New Black Panther Party and other activists began showing up at addresses associated with the ageing 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 February 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 on Donham because the grand jury did not indict her last year.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, run by some of Till’s relatives, posted a blank black square to social media sites Thursday after news of Donham’s death was reported.
Credit: NPR, Associated Press