A white woman from Mississippi whose 1955 accusation against a black teenager Emmett Till led to his murder has died. Carolyn Bryant Donham’s death at age 88 closes a chapter on one of the most infamous lynchings in US history.
Prosecutors sought charges against her for the killing of Till, 14, up until the year before her death. Last year they failed to convince a grand jury that she should be put on trial for kidnapping and manslaughter.
A statement from the Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley Institute said that they “wish mercy on her soul, even as we regret that she never took responsibility for her role” in Till’s murder.
“While the world saw the horrors of racism in Emmett’s murder, the real consequences of hatred, what the world will never now see is remorse or responsibility for his death.”
The Chicago boy was visiting family when he entered a store in Money, Mississippi, where Donham, then 21, worked. Donham accused him of making improper advances and harassing her while she was alone in the shop.
Her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped the boy at gunpoint, tortured him and tossed his battered body into a river.
At Till’s funeral, his mother Mamie Till Mobley insisted on an open coffin so everyone could see what had been done to him. Published photos of his brutalised remains shocked the nation.
The two kidnappers, Roy Bryant and JW Milam – were arrested over the murder, but were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. They later admitted to the killing in a magazine interview, but could not be re-tried under US law. Both are now dead.
Donham died in the small town of Westlake, Louisiana, a coroner confirmed on Thursday.
Rev Wheeler Park Jr, a cousin of Till who is the last living witness to his abduction, said “our hearts go out” her family, adding: “I recognise that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her.”
“Even though no one now will be held to account for the death of my cousin and best friend, it is up to all of us to be accountable to the challenges we still face in overcoming racial injustice.”
During the trial against her husband and his half-brother, Donham took the stand and testified that Till had grabbed her hand and propositioned her.
In a 2008 interview with a Yale historian, she recanted the claim, reportedly saying: “That part’s not true.”
The admission sparked the Department of Justice to re-examine her case, but when asked directly by investigators, she denied that she had lied during the trial.
Donham was never taken into custody over the events that led to the lynching.
But in June 2022, a group searching the basement of the local county courthouse discovered an unserved arrest warrant charging Bryant, Milam and Donham with Till’s abduction.
Though the warrant was made public at the time, the then-sheriff told reporters he did not want to “bother” a mother with two young children at home.
In an unpublished memoir obtained by the Associated Press, Donham wrote that she did not know what would happen to Till when she made her accusation.