Emmett Till and Carolyn B. Donham
By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
The white woman who testified that a Black teenager named Emmett Till had made inappropriate approaches toward her, which led to his lynching and murder in Mississippi in 1955, has died. According to a coroner’s report, Carolyn Bryant Donham, 88, died while receiving hospice care in Louisiana. A death record issued on Thursday, April 27, in the Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office noted that Donham died in Westlake, Louisiana, two nights earlier. Donham’s false claims against Emmett Till set off a chain of events that sparked the modern civil rights movement. After the teen’s mother insisted his casket remain open during the funeral and photos of Till’s battered and mutilated body appeared in Jet Magazine, the world received a birds-eye view of the brutality of America’s rampant racism. In August 1955, Till traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to spend time with relatives. Donham, then 21 years old and going by the name Carolyn Bryant, accused Till of making inappropriate approaches toward her while she worked at a grocery shop in the small town of Money, Mississippi. According to the Reverend Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till who was present at the time, the 14-year-old Till whistled at the woman, which was an act that violated the racist social standards that were prevalent in Mississippi. Evidence suggested a lady identified Emmett Till to Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, who were responsible for Till’s murder. An all-white jury acquitted the two white suspects, but the men later confessed their guilt in an interview with Look magazine. In 2022, the Associated Press secured a copy of Donham’s unpublished memoir, in which she claimed that she had no idea what would become of Till. The outlet noted that the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting was the first organization to reveal the contents of the 99-page book titled “I am More Than A Wolf Whistle.” Author and historian Timothy Tyson of Durham, North Carolina, gave reporters a copy of the book. Tyson claimed he received a copy from Donham in 2008 while interviewing her, the Associated Press reported. Though Tyson claimed to have provided the FBI with the text, the agency ended its lengthy investigation into Donham in 2021. The book was deposited in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the promise that it would only be made public at a later time. Tyson stated that he decided to make it public after individuals performing research at the Leflore County courthouse in Mississippi in June 2022 discovered an arrest warrant on abduction charges that were issued for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” in 1955 but were never served or executed. In March 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act of 2022, making lynching a federal hate crime. Earlier, the bipartisan measure passed both chambers of Congress. The legislation received pushback from three Republicans – Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Chip Roy of Texas. Each was the lone vote against the bill. “I could not have been prouder to stand behind President Biden as he signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law,” National Urban League President Marc Morial stated. “The act of lynching is a weapon of racial terror that has been used for decades, and our communities are still impacted by these hate crimes to this day,” Morial continued. “This bill is long overdue, and I applaud President Biden and Members of Congress for their leadership in honoring Emmett Till and other lynching victims by passing this significant piece of legislation.” According to the bill’s text, “Whoever conspires to commit any offense… shall (A) if death results from the offense, be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” “(B) In any other case, be subjected to the same penalties as the penalties prescribed for the offense of the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.” Specifically, the legislation makes lynching a federal hate crime, punishable by up to life in prison. The measure had faced defeat for over 100 years, with lawmakers attempting to pass the legislation more than 200 times. The House finally passed the bill on a 422-3 vote. It passed unanimously in the Senate.