Mississippi authorities say they gave Carolyn Bryant Donham preferential treatment and no prosecution after her encounter with Emmett Till in the summer of 1955 led to the black teenager’s lynching.
Rather than arresting Donham with a warrant charging her with kidnapping days after Till’s kidnapping, an officer broke the news that relatives were taking her and her two young sons away from home amid growing excitement over the case, Donham said in one 2008 paper public last month. The sheriff later claimed Donham, then 21, could not be located for arrest.
After her husband and half-brother were jailed for murder in Till’s death, she said in the unpublished manuscript, two men from the sheriff’s office drove her and her sister-in-law to the jail for a relaxing visit outside their cell, and even took the women home. Later, before her murder trial, the men were somehow allowed to attend a family dinner without guards, she said.
“I was shocked! How on earth did you get out of jail to have dinner with us? I didn’t see who dropped her off or picked her up to take her back to jail, but we had a wonderful evening together.” Donham recalled in the memoir her daughter-in-law wrote based on the older woman’s words.
Nearly 70 years later, Donham’s retelling of the days surrounding Till’s kidnapping and lynching is fueling new frustration among Till’s relatives and activists pushing for Donham’s prosecution, especially now that a Mississippi grand jury has ruled she was not charged with kidnapping or manslaughter in his kidnapping accuse death.
For her, the revelations also raise questions about whether Donham, now 88, is still being protected despite new evidence against her.
Carolyn Donham has rarely spoken publicly about the Till case, and she has not spoken publicly about the recent decision against new charges. That’s why her memoir, published by a historian who said he received it in an interview years ago, caused such a stir when it was published a few weeks ago. The decision not to charge her followed media reports detailing the document, but it’s unclear if the grand jurors considered the contents of the autobiography.
In the 99-page memoir, Donham said Till, 14 and visiting relatives in Mississippi from Chicago, went into the family store on August 24, 1955, where she tended the counter. Neither husband Roy Bryant nor his half-brother, JW Milam, were around that day — it was just her and Till, who also went by the family nickname “Bobo.”
In the report, Donham reiterates her testimony at the murder trial that Till grabbed her and made suggestive comments. He also whistled, she said, in the only part of her story supported by Till’s cousin and witness Wheeler Parker Jr. during an interview with The Associated Press.
Evidence indicated that days later Till was kidnapped at gunpoint by two armed white men and a woman likely identified the youth for her. While Donham denied identifying Till in the memoir and says she instead tried to help him, she was named along with Bryant and Milam in a kidnapping order. Donham was never arrested, although police knew at least some of her whereabouts.
For a time, Donham said, she was spirited away with officers’ knowledge and “shuffled” between houses by the Bryant family. Then, with Donham in the courtroom, the two men were charged with Till’s murder and acquitted. The kidnapping charges were later dropped, and no one has been charged or brought to justice since.
After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the kidnapping and murder in an interview with Look magazine.
In the memoir, Donham said she didn’t even know there was a warrant out for her arrest until an FBI agent told her during a re-investigation decades later.
The warrant lay unknown and unseen in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse until June, when members of the Till family and others found it during a search. At the time of the murder, Donham wrote, “they didn’t even tell me there was a warrant out.”
“I’ve never been arrested or charged with anything,” she said.
The nagging question for some is why not?
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker and activist who helped find the warrant, believes the decision not to charge Donham rests not with the grand jury that voted against new charges, but with a system that stretches back generations.
Mississippi law enforcement, which was all white at the time of the murder, allowed Donham to evade justice to protect “white womanhood,” he said, and the same veil now covers her.
“The chivalrous impulse allowed this woman to remain untouched for 67 years,” said Beauchamp, who released the 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till and helped write and produce the upcoming film Till, a drama , which is scheduled to premiere in October.
But in announcing a Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to indict Donham on Tuesday, District Attorney Dewayne Richardson did not cite race, femininity, or anything else as evidence. The members of the panel were presented with testimony covering the investigation into Till’s killing from 2004 to the present, he said in a statement.
“After more than seven hours of hearings from witnesses with direct knowledge of this case and the investigators investigating this case, the grand jury determined that there was insufficient evidence to indict Donham,” said Richardson, who is Black.
Members of the Till family were not happy with the decision. But Rev. Wheeler Parker of Chicago, a cousin of Till who was with the youth the night he was abducted from a family home, struck a conciliatory tone because he received no charges, a decision he made described as “unfortunate but predictable”. “
“The state of Mississippi has assured me and my family that they will stop at nothing in the fight for justice for my cousin Emmett. They kept their promise by bringing this latest piece of evidence before the grand jury,” he said.
Parker expressed his appreciation for the prosecutor’s efforts, saying one person alone “could not undo hundreds of years of anti-black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished to this day.”
It’s unclear if a grand jury will ever again hold Carolyn Donham’s fate in its hands.
At least three investigations have ended without charge in less than 20 years, including a Justice Department review that ended without charge in December. Bryant and Milam died decades ago, and other associates some believe were involved are also dead. Donham is the only person known to still be at risk of arrest.
The Till family and others have vowed to continue pressing for someone to prosecute Donham, and additional witnesses may still be alive, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the Till case in an investigation that left no charges for manslaughter ended in 2007.
“There’s still a chance that there’s other evidence out there,” Killinger said in an interview.
Maybe, but it’s unclear if anyone with a badge is looking for it. The Justice Department has given no indication that it would reopen the case, and Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office cited the Justice Department’s decision, saying that no prosecution was planned even before Richardson announced that the grand jury ruled against the indictment.
In her memoir, Donham denied doing anything to kill Till and expressed her sadness at his family’s pain. She portrayed herself as another victim of the horrific crime, someone who had stopped trusting strangers and had been hounded by the media for decades.
For some, enough is enough.
“Donham may not have paid the price that some would have asked of her, but she suffered for what happened to Till. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being honest with themselves. It’s time to leave them alone,” The Greenwood Commonwealth Leflore County newspaper said in an editorial after the grand jury’s decision was announced .
Ollie Gordon, another of Till’s cousins, may have had some justice done without anyone being convicted of the murder.
“Ms. Donham didn’t go to jail. But in many ways I don’t think she had a comfortable life. I think that every day she wakes up she has to face the atrocities that happened because of her actions,” Gordon said.
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https://6abc.com/emmett-till-carolyn-donham-mississippi-kidnapping/12122558/ Carolyn Bryant Donham: Troubling questions unresolved in latest end to Till case