In an unpublished memoir, the White woman whose accusation of improper advances prompted the 1955 kidnapping and killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till called herself “a victim” and declined to retract her disputed account of the events leading to Till’s murder.
But lawyers and members of Till’s family say the book is filled with inaccuracies. “From Day 1, Carolyn Bryant has lied in this case,” said Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights lawyer who has followed the case closely. “And her lies have now piled up to the point where we can clearly see the contradictions, including in the memoir.”
Donham wrote in “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham” that the last time she saw Till alive, he had been dragged into her kitchen by her husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother, along with other White men, demanding that she identify him.
“They stood between the kitchen and bathroom, with the young man standing in the center,” Donham wrote. “Roy turned to me and growled, ‘Is that him?’ ”
She claimed that she didn’t want Till hurt, so she told Roy he had the wrong person. “‘No, it’s not him,” she said, according to the memoir. “ 'You have the wrong person, it’s NOT him.’ All I could think was, ‘Take him home, please take him home.’ I was terrified for his safety.”
The revelation of the unpublished memoir comes more than 67 years after Donham, who was then known as Carolyn Bryant, encountered Till in her family’s general store in Money, Miss.
That summer, Till had traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives. A few days after he arrived, he and his cousins went to buy candy at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Relatives said that Till, who had grown up in Chicago and did not know the dangers of White people in the South, had playfully whistled at Carolyn Bryant. A wolf whistle from a child, they said, should not have meant a death sentence.
“A fourteen-year-old young man walked into our store in Money, Mississippi early evening as I worked alone,” wrote Donham, who is now in her late 80s and lives in North Carolina. “That night, I was frightened beyond words.”
She wrote that inside the store, the boy grabbed her waist — an allegation Till’s relatives said they did not believe.
Four nights after Till left the store, Donham wrote, “My husband, Roy Bryant, his brother, J.W. Milam, and a group of other men tortured and killed that young man. The horror that played out that night changed both my life and my country forever.”
Cynthia Deitle, the former unit chief of the FBI’s civil rights division, said she wished Donham had the courage and compassion decades ago to tell Till’s family the truth. “She destroyed them,” said Deitle, “but it’s not too late for her to do what’s right and tell the truth to law enforcement and Emmett’s family. It’s the least she could do.”
The last time Till’s relatives saw him alive was in the home of his great-uncle, Mose Wright. Roy Bryant and his brother went to Wright’s home that night and demanded the boy come out. Wright pleaded with the men to leave Till alone, but they ordered him to lead them to Till. The White men, holding flashlights, found Till asleep in bed. They made him get dressed.
Days later, on Aug. 31, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, weighted with a cotton gin pulley twisted around his neck with barbed wire. His face was swollen beyond recognition. His teeth were missing. His ear was severed. His eye was hanging out of its socket.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, identified her son only by a ring he wore. In her grief, she called the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s leading Black newspapers, and told reporters she wanted the world to see the barbaric act committed against her son. Gruesome photos subsequently published in Jet of the boy with a beaten, bruised and bloated face prompted national outcry across the world and helped spark the modern U.S. civil rights movement.
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were charged with murder and kidnapping and tried in September 1955 in Sumner, Miss. They were acquitted by an all-White jury after about an hour of deliberations. The acquittal shocked the world. Several months later, on Jan. 24, 1956, Look Magazine published their confessions.
Nowhere in Donham’s 99-page narrative, which was dictated in 2008 to her daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant, did she retract her accusation against Till, though she wrote that she was never hurt in the store, only frightened. She claimed she pleaded with her husband “to forget it happened.”
“The young man had scared me,” she wrote. “I felt violated but I was not raped. I knew how bad Roy’s temper could get and I didn’t want it to gain control over him.”
Earlier this month, a team looking for new evidence in Till’s death discovered an unserved 1955 warrant for Donham’s arrest in a file folder in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse. The discovery has prompted renewed calls for her arrest.
“Execute warrant now!” tweeted the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.
But Jefferson said the warrant is “a historical piece of paper” but legally useless. The kidnapping charge had a two-year statute of limitations. “No court in Mississippi will uphold a claim that the warrant commenced a prosecution that has last for almost 70 years,” Jefferson said.
Still, Jefferson argued, Donham could be charged with manslaughter if attorneys presented a case that she “should have known that her actions could harm Emmett — and there is little doubt that she did know.” In the memoir, Donham wrote that her husband had a “hot temper” and that “I knew if he found out, he’d be mad at me and also want to hurt the young man.”
Donham also wrote that she learned about the unserved warrant decades after Till’s killing, when she was interviewed by the FBI.
In much of the memoir, Donham portrayed herself as a victim. “I always felt like a victim as well as Emmett,” she wrote. “He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation. Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no! Did we both pay a price for it, yes, we did. He paid dearly with the loss his life. I paid dearly with an altered life.”
She wrote that she hoped the book would affect the way she’s characterized in the story. “I am not an evil woman,” she wrote. “I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn’t know what was planned for him.”
On Friday, the Mississippi attorney general’s office told the Associated Press it did not plan to prosecute Donham. “There’s no new evidence to open the case back up,” said Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Attorney General Lynn Fitch.