The white woman who accused Black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 says she did not identify him to the killers and did not want him killed.
Carolyn Bryant Donham said in an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press that she had no idea what would happen to 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted, killed, and thrown in a river.
Donham, who is now 87, was only 21 at the time. Roy Bryant, her then-husband, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were acquitted of murder charges but later confessed to killing Emmett Till in a magazine interview.
The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting first reported on the contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled “I am More Than A Wolf Whistle.” Durham historian and author Timothy Tyson, who said he got a copy from Donham while interviewing her in 2008, gave the AP a copy on Thursday.
Tyson had kept the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the agreement that it will not be publicized for decades, but he claimed he gave it to the FBI during an investigation that concluded last year. He said he decided to make it public now as a result of the recently discovered arrest warrant for Donham on kidnapping charges that was issued in 1955 but never served.
“The potential for an investigation was more important than the archival agreements, though those are important things,” Tyson said. “But this is probably the last chance for an indictment in this case.”
Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin who heads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said the memoir is new evidence that shows Donham’s involvement in the case and is especially significant when combined with the arrest warrant.
“I truly believe that these developments cannot be ignored by the authorities in Mississippi,” she said.
Donham wrote in her memoir that she tried to help Till after he was found by her husband and brother-in-law and brought to her in the middle of the night for identification.
“I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn’t know what was planned for him,” Donham says in the manuscript compiled by her daughter-in-law. “I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘He’s not the one. That’s not him. Please take him home.’”
She claims in the manuscript that Emmett Till who was dragged from his relative’s home at gunpoint in the middle of the night spoke up and identified himself.
Donham goes on to say that she “always felt like a victim, as well as Emmett,” and that she “paid dearly with an altered life” for what happened to him.
“I’ve always prayed that God will bless Emmett’s family. I am truly sorry for the pain his family was caused,” she writes at the end of the manuscript, which is signed “Carolyn” but indicates it was written by her daughter-in-law Marsha Bryant.
According to Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the case more than 15 years ago, the memoir is remarkable not only because it is the most extensive account of the sensational episode ever recorded by Donham, but also because it contains contradictions that raise questions about her truthfulness over time.
Donham, for example, claims in her memoir that she yelled for help after being confronted by Till inside the family grocery store in Money, Mississippi, but no one ever reported hearing her screams, Killinger stated. Donham also never mentioned that she and Roy Bryant discussed the abduction. She claims they did in the manuscript.
“That seems ludicrous,” Killinger said. “How could you have such a major event in your life and not talk about it?”
The Justice Department concluded its most recent investigation into the case in December, and Mississippi authorities have made no indication that the kidnapping warrant or other charges against Donham will be pursued. However, the Till family is pressuring authorities to act.
According to Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker whose documentary preceded the Justice Department probe in which Killinger was involved and which ended without charges in 2007, the memoir shows that Donham “is culpable in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till, and to not hold her accountable for her actions is an injustice to us all.”
“Our fight will continue until justice is finally served,” said Beauchamp.
Beauchamp and two of Till’s relatives discovered the arrest warrant with Donham’s name on it in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse earlier this month.
Tyson, the historian who provided the roughly 35,000-word manuscript to the AP, helped spark the government’s most recent investigation by publishing a book in 2017 that quoted Donham as saying she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled, and made sexual advances. However, in her memoir, she claims Till did these things.
According to the Justice Department, Donham told the FBI during the most recent investigation that she had never recanted.
According to Tyson, Donham’s statements in the memoir exonerating herself of wrongdoing should be taken with “a good-sized shovel full of salt,” particularly her claim that Till identified himself to the men who took him from the family home and later admitted to killing him.
“Two big white men with guns came and dragged him out of his aunt and great-uncle’s house at 2 o’clock in the morning in the Mississippi Delta in 1955. I do not believe for one minute that he identified himself,” Tyson said.
Donham and her relatives have not responded to AP messages or phone calls seeking comment. It is unknown where Donham currently resides or whether she has an attorney. Her last known location was Raleigh, North Carolina.