Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman whose false accusation led to the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, has died at the age of 88.
Till’s murder inspired much of the Civil Rights Movement, almost a century after the end of the Civil War and adoption of anti-slavery amendments to the US Constitution.
Donham had been battling cancer and was under hospice care when she passed away. Her death comes after a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict her in August of last year over Till’s death.
Devery Anderson, author of “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” said that Donham’s death marked the end of a chapter. “Now that can’t happen,” he said, referring to the hopes of some that Donham could be prosecuted.
Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he allegedly whistled at Donham, a white woman, in a store in Money. Donham’s then-husband and his half-brother beat and shot Till to death. The men were acquitted by an all-white jury, but later confessed to the murder in an interview with Look magazine.
The Till case is widely regarded as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Till’s mother, Mamie, famously left her son’s casket open during his funeral so that “the world could see what they did to my boy.”
The photograph of Till’s brutalized body appeared in Jet and other publications around the world.
Donham had long insisted on her innocence in Till’s murder, but civil rights activists and others have accused her of identifying Till to his killers. In her unpublished memoir, “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle,” Donham repeated her claim of innocence.
The memoir remains sealed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until 2036. But a copy was obtained by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, now part of Mississippi Today, which contradicts her original statement to her husband’s defense lawyer.
In her original statement, Donham said that Till “was scared but hadn’t been harmed. He didn’t say anything. Roy asked if that was the same one, and I told him it was not the one who had insulted me.”