The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Grand jury won’t indict White woman linked to Emmett Till’s lynching

Emmett Till's photo on his grave marker in Alsip, Ill., in 2005. (Robert A. Davis/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)

Five people were sifting through dusty files in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse two months ago when they laid eyes on a document that hadn’t been seen for decades.

It was a warrant from August 1955 for the arrests of those involved in the kidnapping of the Black teenager Emmett Till. Two of the names on the documents had checks beside them. A third did not — “Mrs. Roy Bryant,” now Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman whose accusations against Till led to his lynching.

But a grand jury in Leflore County — where Till was lynched and tossed into a river by Donham’s then-husband and his brother — decided not to indict her, District Attorney Dewayne Richardson said in a news release Tuesday.

The grand jury found that there was not sufficient evidence to indict Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter after hearing seven hours of testimony from investigators and witnesses last week.

In the weeks since the unserved warrant was found, Till’s family and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation urged Richardson to serve the warrant that was never executed nearly 70 years ago.

In September 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley, Till’s mother, had an open-coffin funeral for her son, whose body was so badly beaten it was only recognizable by a ring he wore. Till-Mobley’s decision and fervent telling of her son’s story to reporters reignited the civil rights movement.

That same month, Donham’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother, J.W. Milam, were acquitted of murder by an all-White, all-male jury after deliberating for a little more than one hour.

Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., who is the last living witness of the kidnapping, told the Associated Press in a statement that the decision to not indict Donham was “unfortunate, but predictable.”

“The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett did so in plain sight, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes,” Parker said in the statement.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation said on Facebook that it would “Never Give Up” trying to hold Donham accountable, to keep its promise to Till-Mobley.

“Carolyn Bryant Donham’s actions, and the unserved warrant proves her culpability,” the organization’s post said. “There was probable cause for her arrest.”

The discovery of the warrant also ignited a search for Donham, who is now in her late 80s and whose whereabouts have been kept secret by her family. When author Timothy Tyson interviewed her in 2008 — the only known interview Donham has given outside of investigations — she was staying in Raleigh, N.C.

Donham said her testimony in court that Till had made sexual advances was not true, according to Tyson’s book “The Blood of Emmett Till.” During a news conference in 2018, the author said he believed Donham’s family wanted her to do the interview so that she could speak about what happened in 1955 before she died.

Donham, 21 at the time, accused the 14-year-old Till of improper advances at a family store in Money, Miss. Four days later, her husband and Milam kidnapped Till from a relative’s home, lynched him and tossed him into a river. Till’s body was found attached to a 75-pound fan.

In Donham’s unpublished memoir, which was obtained by reporters last month, she said she pleaded with her husband and his brother not to hurt Till, calling herself “a victim.”

Lawyers and Till’s family have disputed the claims in her memoir, titled, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham.”

When a federal case was presented in 2007, another Leflore County grand jury decided not to indict Donham on a charge of manslaughter. Last year, the state of Mississippi and the Justice Department closed a second investigation that began after information came out that Donham had recanted her statements from the previous case during her interview with Tyson.

The lack of indictment this month is a letdown for Till’s family and activists across the country who have advocated for Donham to be prosecuted.

“The murder of Emmett Till remains an unforgettable tragedy in this country and the thoughts and prayers of this nation continue to be with the family of Emmett Till,” Richardson said in the news release.