Emmett Till: woman whose accusation led to lynching won’t be charged

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FILE: John W. Milam, 35, left, his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24, and Carolyn Bryant Donham (AP)
FILE: John W. Milam, 35, left, his half-brother Roy Bryant, 24, and Carolyn Bryant Donham (AP)

A white woman whose accusation against Emmett Till caused the black teenager to be lynched nearly 70 years ago will not be charged with kidnap or manslaughter, a grand jury found.

The brutal killing of the 14-year-old, found in a Mississippi river shot in the head, his body weighed down with a giant metal fan, galvanised the modern civil rights movement.

A jury found there was insufficient evidence to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham despite recent revelations about an unserved arrest warrant and the 87-year-old’s unpublished memoir.

In June, a group searching the basement of the Leflore County Courthouse discovered the unserved arrest warrant charging Donham, then-husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law J.W. Milam in Till’s abduction in 1955.

While the men were arrested and acquitted on murder charges in Till’s subsequent slaying, Donham, 21 at the time, was never taken into custody.

The Chicago boy was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and some other children went to the store in the town of Money where Carolyn Bryant worked. Relatives said that Till had whistled at the white woman, but denied that he touched her as she’d claimed.

In an unpublished memoir, obtained last month, Donham said Milam and her husband brought Till to her in the middle of the night for identification but that she tried to help the youth by denying it was him.

She claimed that Till then volunteered that he was the one they were looking for.

Till’s battered, disfigured body was found days later in a river. The decision by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to open Till’s casket for his funeral in Chicago demonstrated the horror of what had happened and added fuel to the civil rights movement.

Following their acquittal, Bryant and Milam admitted to the abduction and killing in an interview with Look magazine. They were not charged with a federal crime, and both have long since died.

Till’s body was exhumed, in part to confirm it was he. A 2005 autopsy found that Till died of a gunshot wound to the head, and that had fractures in his wrist bones, skull and femur.

The Rev. Wheeler Parker, Jr, Emmett Till’s cousin and the last living witness to Till’s August 28, 1955, abduction, said Tuesday’s announcement was “unfortunate, but predictable.”

“The prosecutor tried his best, and we appreciate his efforts, but he alone cannot undo hundreds of years of anti-Black systems that guaranteed those who killed Emmett Till would go unpunished, to this day,” Parker said in a statement.

“The fact remains that the people who abducted, tortured, and murdered Emmett did so in plain sight, and our American justice system was and continues to be set up in such a way that they could not be brought to justice for their heinous crimes.”

Ollie Gordon, another one of Till’s cousins, told The Associated Press that some justice had been served in the Till case, despite the grand jury’s decision.

“Justice is not always locking somebody up and throwing the keys away,” Gordon said. “Ms. Donham has not gone to jail. But in many ways, I don’t think she’s had a pleasant life. I think each day she wakes up, she has to face the atrocities that have come because of her actions.”