By her own account, authorities in Mississippi gave Carolyn Bryant Donham preferential treatment over prosecution after her encounter with Emmett Till led to the black teenager’s lynching in the summer of 1955.
Instead of arresting Donham on a warrant that charged him with kidnapping days after Till was abducted, an officer said relatives would take her and her two young sons away from their home amid of growing fury 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.
After her husband and half-brother were jailed for murder in Till’s death, she said in the unpublished manuscript, two men from the sheriff’s office drove her and her sister-in-law , to the dungeon for a relaxed visit outside their cell and even brought the women home. Later, before their murder trial, the men were somehow allowed to attend a family dinner without guards, she said.
“I was shocked! How the hell did they get released from jail to come and have dinner with us? I didn’t see who dropped them off or picked them up to take them back to jail, but we had a wonderful evening together,” he said. Donham recalls in memoirs, written by her stepdaughter based on the older woman’s words.
Nearly 70 years later, Donham’s account of the days surrounding Till’s abduction and lynching is stoking new frustration among Till’s relatives and activists calling for Donham’s prosecution, especially now that a grand jury in the Mississippi decided not to charge him with kidnapping in his abduction or manslaughter in his death.
For them, the revelations also raise questions about whether Donham, now 88, is still protected despite what they see as new evidence against her.
Carolyn Donham has rarely commented publicly on the Till case, and she hasn’t said anything publicly about the recent ruling against new charges. That’s why his memoir – made public by a historian who said he got it in an interview years ago – created such a stir when it was published a few weeks ago. The decision not to charge him followed media reports with details about the document, but it’s unclear whether the grand jurors considered the contents of the autobiography.
In the 99-page memoir, Donham said Till, 14, and visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago, entered the family store where she guarded the counter on August 24, 1955. Neither her husband Roy Bryant nor her half -brother, JW Milam, were there that day – it was just her and Till, who also went by the surname “Bobo”.
In the narrative, Donham repeats his 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 supported by Till Wheeler’s cousin and witness Parker Jr. during an interview with The Associated Press.
Evidence indicates that Till was abducted at gunpoint days later by two armed white men, and a woman likely identified the youth for them. While Donham in the memoir denied identifying Till and said she tried to help him instead, she was named in a kidnapping warrant along with Bryant and Milam. Donham was never arrested, although police know her whereabouts at least some of the time.
For a time, Donham said, she was carried away by officers’ acquaintances and “shuffled” between homes by the Bryant family. Then, with Donham in the courtroom, the pair were tried and acquitted of Till’s murder. The kidnapping charges were later dropped, and no one has been charged or tried since.
After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the kidnapping and murder in an interview with Look magazine.
In the memoir, Donham said she didn’t even know there was a warrant for her arrest until an FBI agent told her during a renewed investigation decades later.
The warrant remained 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 murder, Donham wrote, “they didn’t even tell me there was a warrant”.
“I have never been 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 not to indict Donham lies not with grand jurors who voted against new charges, but with a system that dates back generations.
Mississippi law enforcement, who was all-white at the time of the murder, allowed Donham to avoid justice in a misguided quest to protect “white womanhood,” he said, and that same veil. cover it now.
“The chivalric impulse has kept this woman intact for 67 years,” said Beauchamp, who released the documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” in 2005 and helped write and produce the next film “Till “, a drama that is scheduled to premiere in October.
But in announcing a Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to indict Donham, District Attorney Dewayne Richardson on Tuesday did not cite race, gender or anything other than evidence. Panel members heard testimony from witnesses who recounted the Till murder investigation from 2004 to the present, he said in a statement.
“After hearing more than seven hours of testimony from witnesses with direct knowledge of this matter and from the investigators who investigated this matter, the grand jury determined that there was insufficient evidence to charge Donham,” said Richardson, who is black.
Members of the Till family were unhappy with the decision. Still, the Reverend Wheeler Parker of Chicago, a cousin of Till who was with the youngster the night he was abducted from a family home, struck a conciliatory tone about the failure to obtain a writ. prosecution, a decision he called “unfortunate, but predictable”. ”
“The State of Mississippi has assured me and my family that they will leave no stone unturned in the fight for justice for my cousin, Emmett. They have delivered on their promise by bringing this final piece of evidence before the grand jury,” he said.
Expressing gratitude for the prosecutor’s efforts, Parker said one person “cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that ensured those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day.”
It’s unclear whether a grand jury will once again hold Carolyn Donham’s fate 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 died. Donham is the only known person still at risk of arrest.
The Till family and others have vowed to keep pushing for someone to prosecute Donham, and other witnesses may still be alive, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the incident. Till case in an investigation that ended without charge for manslaughter. 2007.
“There’s always a possibility that there’s other evidence out there,” Killinger said in an interview.
Maybe, but it’s unclear if someone with a badge is looking for it. The Justice Department has given no indication it will reopen the case, and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office cited the Justice Department’s decision as saying no prosecution is expected. even before Richardson announced that the grand jury had decided to dismiss the charges.
In her memoir, Donham denied doing anything to have Till killed and expressed sadness for her family’s pain. She presented herself as another victim of the horrific crime, as someone who stopped trusting strangers and was harassed by the media for decades.
For some, that’s enough.
“Donham may not have paid the price some wanted her to pay, but she suffered for what happened to Till. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest with themselves. It’s time to leave her alone,” Leflore County’s Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper said in an editorial after the grand jury’s decision was announced.
For Ollie Gordon, another of Till’s cousins, some justice may have been served even without anyone being convicted of the murder.
“Mrs. Donham didn’t go to jail. But in many ways I don’t think she’s had a good life. I think every day she wakes up she has to deal with the atrocities that have happened. because of his actions,” Gordon said.