In 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham (then just Carolyn Bryant), a 21-year-old white woman, accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, of making an unwelcome advance at her.
Those accusations led to the boy’s brutal murder. Her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were charged with the crime.
Now, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has obtained a copy of an unpublished memoir by Donham in which she reportedly wrote that she “tried to protect” the boy by telling her husband, “He’s not the one. That’s not him. Please take him home.”
And, in an astonishing stroke of insensitivity, she wrote that she “always felt like a victim as well as Emmett.”
Ma’am, hush! You have been alive and breathing for nearly 67 years since Till’s bloated body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River with the fan of a cotton gin tied around his neck.
Donham is now an elderly woman, but let’s be clear: Don’t shed a single tear for her.
She didn’t just accuse Till of making improper advances on the day she first encountered the boy, she upped the ante at trial, saying that Till had also physically assaulted her, grabbing her hand so hard that it was difficult to jerk it loose, and then grabbing her around her waist.
She casually called the murdered boy the N-word at trial, referring to Till as a N-word “man,” even though by the time of the trial everyone knew he was a boy.
And she wasn’t the only one to mislabel him. At one point, the defense attorney asked: “When you got your pistol, Mrs. Bryant, where was this boy then? Or I should say, where was this man?”
The adultification of Black children continues unabated as a means of justifying deadly force visited upon their bodies. When the police shot Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park within seconds of arriving on the scene, the officer who called in the shooting said, “Shots fired, male down, Black male, maybe 20.” Rice was 12 years old.
In Donham’s interview with the F.B.I. in the mid-2000s, when the case was reopened, she said that the boy accosted her, and, “As soon as he touched me, I started screaming for Juanita.” There was no screaming in the original testimony.
In his 2017 book, the historian Timothy Tyson claimed that Donham recanted parts of her trial testimony, writing: “But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, ‘That part’s not true.’ ”
Donham’s family denies that she recanted.
One question still lingers: Donham was involved in Till’s abduction. Till’s Uncle Moses testified at trial that when Bryant and Milam kidnapped the boy, they took him outside to their car, where a third person identified him in a voice that seemed to him “a lighter voice than a man’s.”
Late last month, an unserved arrest warrant for Donham “on a charge of kidnapping” was found in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse. Yet, in a statement Donham gave in 1955, she says that she “did not go to this Negro’s house,” but instead Bryant brought the boy to her to identify.
But, according to an account by the author Douglas O. Linder, Donham was in the truck with Bryant and Milam earlier on the day of the kidnapping “looking for their target,” when they seized another Black man before throwing him out of the truck after Donham said he wasn’t the right N-word.
Then, when Bryant and Milam were acquitted at the trial, the killers kissed their wives, lit cigars and posed for pictures. Donham was one of the kissed wives. Where was the remorse? Where is it now?
Less than a year after the trial ended, in 1956, Bryant and Milam confessed to the gruesome murder in an interview in Look magazine. Still, Donham stayed married to the killer for about 20 years after Till was killed and never offered a public word about the matter.
In the memoir, she writes that when her husband brought the boy to her for identification, Till “flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect.” He didn’t act “scared in the least,” she wrote.
This, by the way, is the same reason Milam gave to Look for murdering the boy. Even though Bryant and Milam took turns pistol whipping the boy in a tool shed in the early morning, Milam said: “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”
The legal system has declined for decades to charge Donham with a crime, and on Friday an aide to the Mississippi attorney general made clear that there are no plans to reopen the case against Donham now.
But, beyond the criminal measure, Donham has failed the moral measure. She has failed at every turn to offer a redeeming word or action for the boy’s murder and her part in it. The words we’ve seen in this memoir don’t cut it.
The only sympathy I have about this case is for Emmett Till and his family. For Donham I have only questions, and contempt.