The white woman who spurred the brutal lynching of Emmett Till, a killing that illuminates America’s racist past, suffers from cancer and is receiving hospice care in her son’s Kentucky home, according to recent photographs published by Daily Mail.
It is the first time in 20 years the media have spotted Carolyn Bryant Donham. The sighting comes as Emmett’s family pushes for an outstanding warrant to be used to arrest her for her involvement in the 14-year-old’s lynching. She was previously seen in North Carolina, prompting activists to descend on a senior living facility and home in the Tar Heel State. However, the Daily Mail reports that Donham is spending her final days with her son, Thomas Bryant and the family’s pet Shih Tzu in an undisclosed location in Kentucky.
Nearly 70 years ago, Donham accused the teenage boy of flirting with her, an action that went against the unwritten but prominent rules of the Jim Crow South. Emmett was visiting Money, Mississippi, from Chicago for the summer and saw Donham at her family store. Emmett’s cousin, Wheeler Parker Jr., said he whistled at the woman, who was 21 years old at that time. Donham said she was terrified and reported the incident to her husband.
Her husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother Joe William Milam kidnapped, beat, tortured and tied Emmett to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire before dumping it in a river. The pair — who were assisted in the crime by other men who were never indicted — were arrested and charged, and then acquitted by an all-white jury, but they admitted to the crime later in a magazine interview.
After the teenager’s body was discovered in 1955, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Donham for her role in Emmett’s kidnapping. The boy’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, said he heard a voice “softer than a man’s” identify Emmett before he was hauled off in a pickup truck at gunpoint the night before his battered body washed up in the river. His injuries were so severe that Wright could only identify him by a ring he wore.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, allowed his disfigured corpse to be shown to the thousands of people who attended his funeral in Chicago. Photographs from the casket are now racial violence memorabilia. The case became a flashpoint of the civil rights movement.
Many believe Donham helped her husband and brother-in-law get away with murder by upping her recollection of the incident during the trial. She said then that Emmett grabbed her hand and waist and asked for a date, but she never told authorities that version of events. Duke University professor Timothy Tyson told federal investigators Donham told him in a 2008 interview that she lied about those details on the witness stand. Federal authorities have opened and closed two investigations into Donham. The most recent closure was in December.
Emmett’s family and supporters believed Donham was able to dodge prosecution for decades because she is white and Emmett was Black. They hope the warrant they discovered in a Mississippi courthouse in late June could help change that. They are calling on authorities to “serve it and arrest her.”
Authorities in 1955 reportedly said “they didn’t want to “bother” Donham because she was a young mother of two children. Reports show there was a note on the back of the warrant that said Donham was out of town.
Now 88, the woman appears hunchbacked in the photographs made public on Aug. 1. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office said last month, “there’s no new evidence to open the case back up,” even after Donham’s memoir was publicized in media that same week. In it, the woman said she tried to protect Emmett and never wanted him to be killed. Tyson reportedly obtained the document from Donham in 2008.
According to the latest reports, local prosecutors have not responded to the Till family attorney’s requests for action.