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‘Can Go to Hell for What She Did’: Carolyn Bryant Donham, the Woman Whose Accusation Led to Emmett Till’s Lynching Dies at 88, Ending Campaign for Justice

Carolyn Bryant Donham — the white woman who accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of making improper advances towards her resulting in his brutal murder — has died. She was 88.

Donham was reportedly in hospice suffering from cancer before passing away on April 25 in Westlake, Louisiana.

Woman At Center of Emmett Till Murder Case Admits She Lied at Trial of His Killers
Carolyn Bryant Donham (left) and Emmett Till (right). (Photo: Getty Images)

Emmett Till was a teenager from Chicago visiting his family in Mississippi in 1955 when he went into a grocery store where Donham worked in the town of Money. According to Emmett’s cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker, Emmett whistled at Donham.

Related: ‘Serve It and Arrest Her’: Emmett Till Accuser is Reportedly Cancer-Stricken, Living in Kentucky While Status of Warrant Still Looms

Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and viciously beat Emmett before lynching him for making a pass at his 21-year-old wife. The men kidnapped another Black boy off the road before Donham advised them they had the wrong boy.

“That’s not the n—–! That’s not the one,” said Donham.

The men threw the boy from the truck, resulting in him breaking his front teeth. After bursting into Emmett’s family’s home and grabbing the teenager from his bed, Milam told Emmett’s uncle, Moses Wright, “If this is not the right boy, then we are going to bring him back. If it is not the right boy, we are going to bring him back and put him in the bed.”

Wright then heard a woman’s voice believed to be Donham’s, reply “Yes” when asked if Emmett was the boy who had whistled at her. The men later tortured and killed Emmett.

Emmett’s mother Mamie Till insisted that her son’s casket be left open at this funeral so the world could see what the murderers did to her son. Emmett was beaten, shot in the head, tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and later dumped in the Tallahatchie River.

The men were arrested and later acquitted by an all-white jury. The two men confessed years later in an article published by Look magazine. An unserved arrest warrant from 1955 for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” was also unearthed in February as part of a federal lawsuit against Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks. The lawsuit sought to force the sheriff to serve Donham with the arrest warrant.

The lawsuit claimed Donham falsely claimed to her husband that Emmett assaulted her.

“It was Carolyn Bryant’s lie that sent Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam into a rage, which resulted in the mutilation of Emmett Till’s body into (an) unrecognizable condition.”

FBI agent Dale Killinger investigated the case in 2005 and said Donham should have faced manslaughter charges.

“She should have faced a jury on manslaughter charges,” said Killinger. “Under Mississippi law, if you did or said something, knowing that someone might be harmed, and your statements or actions led to them dying, you would be subject to manslaughter charges.”

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch claimed that there was no new evidence to pursue a criminal case against Donham and declined to indict her. Donham later claimed in her memoir that she meant no harm to come to Emmett.

“His death was tragic and uncalled for beyond all doubt,” she wrote. “For that, I am truly sorry. If it had been within my power to change his fate, I would have done so.”

Parker said he and his family send their sympathies to the woman’s family.

“We don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her,” he said, adding that Emmett’s mother also forgave Donham.

Devery Anderson, the author of “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” said some people “have been clinging to hope that she could be prosecuted. She was the last remaining person who had any involvement,” he said. “Now that can’t happen.”

“It’s going to be a wound, because justice was never done,” he said. “Some others were clinging to hope she might still talk or tell the truth. … Now it’s over.”

People quickly reacted to Donham’s death on social media. While some celebrated her death, others were upset that she was never brought to justice for her part in Emmett’s kidnapping and subsequent murder.

Political commentator Keith Boykin wrote, “Death is not justice. An arrest warrant was issued for Carolyn Bryant Donham in August 1955 related to the murder of Emmett Till. But it was never served. Instead, she was able to live a full life to 88 years old. Emmett Till only lived to 14 years old. This is not justice.”

Law professor and attorney Sherrilyn Ifill wrote, “I have nothing to say about the death of the woman who played such a role in Emmett Till’s murder. So many perpetrators of lynchings lived and in some cases continue to live out their days in freedom. It is part of the terror of lynching & white supremacist violence.”

Others were more concise with their feelings on the matter. “Carolyn Bryant can go to hell for what she did to Emmet Till,” noted one.

Another person wrote a mock-headline about Donham’s death. “Fixed It: Lying-ass Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who [was] never punished for causing the kidnap, torture, and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, is dead.”

Another user replied, “Hell got another demon today. Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman whose lies led to the murder of Emmett Till has died. May her soul never know peace.”

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