The Story Of Emmett Till Continues

Almost a year ago, I wrote of the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.  In recent weeks, a warrant was discovered for the woman who falsely accused Till of making a pass at her … an accusation that led to his murder.  That warrant was never served … it was, after all, 1955 Mississippi where a white woman’s word was valued far more than the life of a young Black person like Emmett Till.  Charles Blow’s column on Sunday is a heart-wrenching plea for justice … though no amount of justice will give Emmett Till his life back.

Shed No Tears for Carolyn Bryant Donham

By Charles M. Blow

Opinion Columnist

17 July 2022


In 1955, Carolyn Bryant Donham (then just Carolyn Bryant), a 21-year-old white woman, accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, of making an unwelcome advance at her.

Those accusations led to the boy’s brutal murder. Her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were charged with the crime.

Now the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting has obtained a copy of an unpublished memoir by Donham in which she reportedly wrote that she “tried to protect” the boy by telling her husband, “He’s not the one. That’s not him. Please take him home.”

And, in an astonishing stroke of insensitivity, she wrote that she “always felt like a victim as well as Emmett.”

Ma’am, hush! You have been alive and breathing for nearly 67 years since Till’s bloated body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River with the fan of a cotton gin tied around his neck.

Donham is now an elderly woman, but let’s be clear: Don’t shed a single tear for her.

She didn’t just accuse Till of making improper advances on the day she first encountered the boy; she upped the ante at trial, saying that Till had also physically assaulted her, grabbing her hand so hard that it was difficult to jerk it loose, and then grabbing her around her waist.

She casually called the murdered boy the N-word at trial, referring to Till as a N-word “man,” even though by the time of the trial, everyone knew he was a boy.

And she wasn’t the only one to mislabel him. At one point, the defense attorney asked: “When you got your pistol, Mrs. Bryant, where was this boy then? Or I should say, where was this man?”

The adultification of Black children continues unabated as a means of justifying deadly force visited upon their bodies. When the police shot Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park within seconds of arriving on the scene, the officer who called in the shooting said, “Shots fired, male down, Black male, maybe 20.” Rice was 12 years old.

In Donham’s interview with the F.B.I. in the mid-2000s, when the case was reopened, she said that the boy accosted her and that “as soon as he touched me, I started screaming for Juanita.” There was no screaming in the original testimony.

In his 2017 book, the historian Timothy Tyson claimed that Donham recanted parts of her trial testimony, writing: “But about her testimony that Till had grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities, she now told me, ‘That part’s not true.’ ”

Donham’s family denies that she recanted.

One question still lingers: Donham was involved in Till’s abduction. Till’s uncle Moses testified at trial that when Bryant and Milam kidnapped the boy, they took him outside to their car, where a third person identified him in a voice that seemed to him “a lighter voice than a man’s.”

Late last month, an unserved arrest warrant for Donham “on a charge of kidnapping” was found in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse. Yet in a statement Donham gave in 1955, she said that she “did not go to this Negro’s house” but instead Bryant took the boy to her to identify.

But according to an account by the author Douglas O. Linder, Donham was in the truck with Bryant and Milam earlier on the day of the kidnapping “looking for their target” when they seized another Black man before throwing him out of the truck after Donham said he wasn’t the right N-word.

Then when Bryant and Milam were acquitted at the trial, the killers kissed their wives, lit cigars and posed for pictures. Donham was one of the kissed wives. Where was the remorse? Where is it now?

Less than a year after the trial ended, in 1956, Bryant and Milam confessed to the gruesome murder in an interview in Look magazine. Still, Donham stayed married to the killer for about 20 years after Till was killed and never offered a public word about the matter.

In the memoir, she writes that when her husband brought the boy to her for identification, Till “flashed me a strange smile and said, ‘Yes, it was me,’ or something to that effect.” He didn’t act “scared in the least,” she wrote.

This, by the way, is the same reason Milam gave to Look for murdering the boy. Even though Bryant and Milam took turns pistol whipping the boy in a tool shed in the early morning, Milam said: “We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.”

The legal system has declined for decades to charge Donham with a crime, and on Friday an aide to the Mississippi attorney general made clear that there are no plans to reopen the case against Donham now.

But, beyond the criminal measure, Donham has failed the moral measure. She has failed at every turn to offer a redeeming word or action for the boy’s murder and her part in it. The words we’ve seen in this memoir don’t cut it.

The only sympathy I have about this case is for Emmett Till and his family. For Donham, I have only questions, and contempt.

32 thoughts on “The Story Of Emmett Till Continues

  1. Thank you so much for spreading this story because this deserves to get much more attention. What happened to Emmett Till was beyond horrific and that’s one of the events that helped kick off the Civil Rights movement. I knew he was innocent, but even then I didn’t know she admitted to lying a few years ago let alone knowing that she’s still alive to this day with children and grandchildren.


  2. The Emmett Till case was so horrific, and in recent years, the haters continue to desecrate his grave. As Charles Blow reminds us, young Black men and children also continue to be brutalized. At the same time, if the reactionaries have their way, Emmett Till’s story will be lost to the history books because we mustn’t let white children be saddened by reading about such American horrors…

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    • Sigh … I cannot understand what pleasure anybody would take in desecrating his grave!!! It is a sign of a vicious person. And yes, I think of some of the things that have happened lately, like the young Black man who was shot more than 60 times simply for running away from a traffic stop … where’s the logic? Oh yeah … the colour of his skin. Silly me. Our education system has been on a downhill path for years now, but this latest move to whitewash history is the final straw for me! Somehow, we must stop this madness! If we forget our history, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

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  3. Jill, one of the most impactful moments to me is when my wife and I toured the Greensboro Civil Rights museum built around on the famous Woolworth’s drugstore counter where the four African-American students did a sit in. The guide came to the Emmett Till exhibit and made us close our eyes as she told what they did to him. It makes you ill that people can be so cruel to anyone, but especially a young boy. His mother pushed the Civil rights movement forward with letting Life take the pictures. Fear of the other. It is a tried and true message to put down others perpetuated by so-called leaders in the pulpit, city halls, general assemblies, Congress and even the White House. This story needs to be told and retold, so people will know what hate can do. Keith

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  4. This story always makes me cry. So much injustice because he had the wrong color of skin.. She should have been tossed into a dungeon and forgotten about forever! And all these years later nothing has improved. That’s what shames me as a white woman

    OMG, the pillow slid off my chair and my butt is paralyzed! some good news though. I now have a place to go. Not what I wanted but some day what I wanted willo

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    • I fully agree with you … white ‘privilege’ or white ‘supremacy’ make me sick. This story remains in the forefront of our minds for a number of reasons, but Emmett Till was just one of many such horrific tragedies. And yes, I agree … we are headed back in that direction — if certain elements in our society and our political system are allowed their way, we could return to the days of Jim Crow … and worse. Sigh.

      Oh dear! I’m sorry about your butt, but I’m so relieved that you have a place to go! Just keep your eyes peeled for a better opportunity, but at least come August 1st you won’t be homeless! I’m relieved. I still must write to you! I do love you, my friend … and think of you often … I’m just a lousy corresponder!!!

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      • I’m not exactly a great one at keeping up with my correspondence! Lately I’ve been so tied up with sewing Barbie clothes and making quilt tops that everything else has been neglected. I don’t have to move out of here until August 31, and if necessary (like if the super B continues to remind me of that) I will wait until the stroke of midnight before leaving which would force her to stay here past her usual race to the door at 3:30. Since the kids are coming in to help store some of my stuff I’ll be here until at least the middle of August. Still hoping to get a call from the Carmel Home so I’ll have a private room and can take more of my personal things with me. Fern Terrace is on the banks of the Ohio River and a beautiful place but I’m not sure how long I can take a small alcove shared with someone else. I needs my space!!! I also don’t want anyone programming my daily activities. But if all else fails at least I’ll be under a roof with a bed to sleep in.

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        • I had no idea you were making Barbie clothes now! I do understand, for this blog takes up most of what little energy I have these days, and by the time I finish at night, I’m just too tired to do much other than go to bed and read for an hour or so before beginning my nightly tossing ‘n turning session!

          Oh, I had it wrong … I thought you had to be out by August 1st … I’m so glad it’s the end of August instead of the 1st! I think it would be funny as heck if you stayed until the stroke of midnight on the 31st!!! I’d even come down and stay there with you just to see the look on her ugly mug!

          Yes, for now do what you must, and I have my fingers crossed that a better option comes available soon, for like you, I need my space, my privacy, and would NOT like sharing a small room with another! But, for now, it beats a park bench. Keep me posted, please?

          Love ‘n hugs, dear Angie!


      • You have that right! One of the biggest problems we have are the people who get away with murder because they are part of certain groups who have bought their way into power. And then there are the ones who don’t bother to vote because of the weather or whatever excuse they have on that day. Our country right or wrong? No way!

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        • Or in this case, she didn’t need to buy her way out of a murder charge … she only had to be white. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. But yes, the apathy of far too many people is what will bring this nation down … people are far more concerned with their own convenience than with the greater good, and far too few have the foresight to look at what the future might hold under certain circumstances. Heck, it’s over 100° in the UK, where it’s NEVER been that hot before, but people still deny climate change, want to go on driving their gas guzzlers, flying off on vacations, tossing their plastic bottles into the ocean. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

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          • I’m chuckling at your reply Jill. I feel a lot like growling too but just don’t think I can do it as well as you have.
            On the bright side of another subject — if the problems I’m having finding a new place to live continue and there is still no room at any inn in Owensboro, my daughter has offered me her mother-in-law’s house in Cynthiana for as long as I would need it. Still prefer staying in O’boro, but no longer worried about not having a place to go. Of course the lines have been drawn here in the building and the harassment continues. I just might begin growling after all. Or roaring! How are you feeling now?

            Be good and do what your doctor tells you. And on that note — do as I say not as I do! I’m the worst when it comes to following a doctor’s orders,

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            • Oh! I thought you had the housing issue resolved, at least temporarily. The house in Cynthiana … would you be living there alone, or is your daughter’s mother-in-law still there? On the one hand, I love the idea of you having an entire house to yourself, to do what you want when you want, but on the other hand, I’d be concerned that you might fall and need help. I think on your last day at your current place you should ‘accidentally’ smack your landlady upside the head with something! Accidentally, of course … you don’t want to end up in jail! I’m feeling okay, though not great. I find I get shaky after just a few minutes on my feet, and I have less energy again, but I’m hanging in there. And yes, my friend, I will do as good as you do at following the doc’s orders! Love you!

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              • Hey, I said do as I say, not as I do! Gina’s mother-in-law passed away two years ago and I don’t know if they tried to sell the house or not, but I think they finally decided to keep it to use for guests who need a place to stay during a visit. As far as falling and not being found goes, this building I’m living in is among the worst! I fell here a few years ago and lay on the cold floor in and out of consciousness for four hours before someone heard me and called 911. We have already had three people die this month and not be found until the smell permeated the hall and the neighbors complained. A couple of years ago over 20 people died and the longest one to be found took 10 days before someone noticed the odor. That one was a friend of mine. She was also the first of the ones to die while the Bee-itch was hiding in her office with the door locked and the blinds shut! It let up during the worst part of the pandemic but has started again.
                BTW, do you know where I can send a sample of the stuff that was on my air filter for analysis? I’ve never seen anything like that thing! I took a photo of it because it was so horrible looking. I had been coughing uncontrollably every morning for a few months but that stopped now that they finally changed the filter.

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                • ANGIE!!! I am horrified and appalled by the number of people who have died in your building and not been found for hours or days!!! There’s just no excuse for that! I’m glad you’re getting out of there! As for the house … I think that might be the perfect solution for you, as long as your kids will help out by taking you to the grocery and such. How far is Cynthiana from Owensboro? I’ve been through both, but cannot remember.

                  No, I don’t know where you could send a sample of that stuff, but I’ll see if I can find out … probably some division or branch of the EPA would be my guess.

                  Take care of yourself, dear friend, and keep me posted! Hugs!


        • Ha ha … how well I remember hearing that expression as a child! Some humans, it seems, have no foresight, no conscience, and put their own “happiness” ahead of their grandchildren’s lives. I think maybe the human species was one big failed experiment!

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  5. The state of my childhood; of course this and many stories made me cower in shame. Have you ever read any of Greg Iles’ stories. I remember around 1998 he wrote a book and I was reading it there in Natchez, the setting of many of his stories. I was at dinner with a friend and asked her, ‘Was there ever an unsolved racial murder here?’ and she said yes, and basically told me what I was reading. Fast forward about four years. I was flying back into the country and stopped to see my friend, who told me, ‘They reopened that old case…’ and they arrested the man and he served time – I think he died in prison. Anyway, there are many layers to that story, as there are to all of them.

    Greg once said in an interview, ‘The blacks were stolen from their country; the Indians had their country stolen from them.’

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    • Indeed, I think I have read almost all of Greg Iles books except perhaps his latest … and he has another coming out next year! Did you know he was in a serious car accident about … I think 10 years or so ago … and lost part of a leg? I only recently saw that. Those words you quote … so true, sadly so very true. Hugs

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