Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman at the center of Emmett Till’s death, has died at age 88.
According to Mississippi Today and Megan LeBoeuf, chief investigator for the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office, Donham was battling cancer and receiving hospice care.
Regarding Donham’s death, Devery Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, said it marks the end of a chapter.
“[Some] have been clinging to hope that she could be prosecuted. She was the last remaining person who had any involvement. Now that can’t happen. [For many] it’s going to be a wound, because justice was never done. Some others were clinging to hope she might still talk or tell the truth […] Now it’s over.”
In August 1955, Till, aged 14, was beaten and fatally shot in Mississippi after being accused of whistling at Donham. His mother, Mamie, insisted on an open-casket funeral to “let the world see what they did to my boy.” Over 50,000 people attended the teenager’s funeral and photos of his battered body were shared in various publications.
An all-white jury acquitted Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, of Till’s murder, but they later confessed to the crime. Meanwhile, Donham claimed she was innocent in the child’s murder. In 2007, a majority-Black Mississippi grand jury declined to indict her following an extensive FBI investigation. In 2022, another grand jury opted not to indict her again.
Donham’s unpublished memoir, I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle, will remain sealed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until 2036.
Dale Killinger, a FBI agent on the Till case, stated that Donham’s memoir contradicts a statement she made in 2005. In the book, she allegedly wrote, “His death was tragic and uncalled for beyond all doubt. For that, I am truly sorry. If it had been within my power to change his fate, I would have done so.”