Emmett Till Accuser Carolyn Bryant Faced Legal Battles Until The End Of Her Life

Carolyn Bryant Donham, whose disputed accusations against Emmett Till contributed to his lynching, died on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the age of 88, according to CNN. In 1955, Donham, then Carolyn Bryant, told her husband, Roy Bryant, that 14-year-old Black boy Emmett Till sexually propositioned her in public. Donham, who was white, reportedly later admitted to a Till biographer that her allegations against the young man were made up. For this reason among others, Donham should bear some legal responsibility for Till's murder, according to a 2023 Till family lawsuit (via The Guardian).

Based on Donham's report to her husband, Roy — along with one other white man, J.W. Milam, and possibly others — abducted Till late at night from the home where he was staying. The teenager was then brutally beaten, shot, and killed. His body was later recovered from the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, near where Till's relatives lived. An all-white jury acquitted Roy and Milam of Till's murder. In the jury's view, his body was so badly disfigured that he could not positively be identified, according to The Clarion-Ledger. Roy and Milam were never indicted on kidnapping charges (via American Public Media). 

By the year 2000, both Roy and Milam had died. In the years between their acquittal and death, Roy and Milam admitted their guilt in an interview with Look magazine, protected by double jeopardy (via NewseumED). No one has ever been held legally responsible for Till's death.

The Till case was reopened in 2004

Carolyn Bryant Donham's version of the 1955 event involving Emmett Till was contradicted by what she told retired FBI agent Dale Killinger — who investigated the Till case when it was reopened around 2004 — in 2005. According to her statements at that time, Till said nothing to her when her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam brought Till to her the night he died. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam allegedly asked Donham if Till was the one who had touched, whistled at, and made sexually suggestive comments toward her. In that FBI interview, she reportedly admitted she could not have recognized him, anyway.

In an unpublished personal memoir, though, reviewed by several media outlets and held until 2036, Donham wrote that Till positively identified himself as the one who had spoken to her in public the night he was killed (via CNN). In a 2008 interview with professor Timothy Tyson, author of 2017's "The Blood of Emmett Till," Donham said her allegations against Till were "not true."  Till's reported behaviors, a violation of Jim Crow-era social norms at the time, did not justify murder, regardless of Donham's statements.

Around 2004, the Justice Department received inquiries as to whether anyone still living —  such as Donham — might be held responsible for Till's lynching. The FBI also reopened many racially motivated cold cases from the era, like Till's murder. In 2007 a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Donham or anyone else still living with a possible connection to Till's death, and the case was closed, Politico writes. 

A warrant for Donham's arrest was uncovered in 2022

Further complicating the matter, a 1955 warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham's arrest was uncovered in 2022 in a basement of a Mississippi courthouse, with Donham identified as "Mrs. Roy Bryant." According to Dale Killinger, that warrant was long rumored to exist. Speaking with CNN, Killinger said, "It means there was probable cause in 1955 to issue a warrant, we hadn't known that had occurred. When I investigated back in 2004-5, we knew allegedly there was a warrant, but we didn't have any record of it. I think I asked her, and she said she wasn't aware of one."

In Mississippi, there is no statute of limitations on murder and kidnapping, and therefore Donham's warrant for arrest could still be served. Also listed on that search warrant were Donham's husband, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam; both were taken into custody, but Donham was never arrested, CNN elsewhere writes. According to an affidavit attached to the warrant, Donham could not be located at the time. Other statements from law enforcement officials mentioned she was left alone as a mother with children to take care of. 

If not for Donham's accusations, Till would not have died, according to a Till family lawsuit

With an arrest warrant uncovered, Emmett Till's living relatives urged law enforcement to take Carolyn Bryant Donham into custody in the 2023 lawsuit.  If not for her disputed accusations against him, Till would not have been killed. Therefore, Donham bore some legal responsibility for the crime, the lawsuit said. The justification for her arrest on the warrant was kidnapping charges, according to CBS News.

Based on her contradictory statements at the trial and later to FBI agents — and purportedly in her unpublished memoir — Donham may have perjured herself. The statute of limitations in Mississippi for perjury had expired, but if proven, Donham may have perjured herself in her more recent FBI statements. Following Till biographer Timothy Tyson's revelations that Donham admitted that Till never sexually propositioned her, the DOJ did once more reopen the Till case, but it was closed again in 2021.

The Till family lawsuit was never litigated, nor was Donham's arrest warrant served. Donham reportedly lived in Kentucky and North Carolina late in life and died in Louisiana. She never commented on the Till family lawsuit or the discovery of the 1955 warrant for her arrest, according to the Associated Press. Outrage surrounding Till's lynching is widely considered a touching-off point for the American Civil Right era.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).