Emmett Till’s Relatives Seek Kidnapping Prosecution

SFamily and activists were unable to call for an investigation into Emmett’s murder. However, their relatives and activists advocated another path to accountability in Mississippi. Authorities should bring in a prosecution of the kidnapper against the victim. The woman accused of starting the lynching was a Black Chicago teenager who made inappropriate advances in 1955.

Carolyn Bryant Donham was named nearly 67 years ago in a warrant that accused her in Till’s abduction, even before his mangled body was found in a river, FBI records show, yet she was never arrested or brought to trial in a case that shocked the world for its brutality.

The authorities at the time stated that she had two young children, and she didn’t want them to disturb her. Donham’s then-husband and another man were acquitted of murder.

Don’t make any mistake, Till’s family still wants to be charged with murder. Jaribu Hills, an attorney representing the Till family, stated that the evidence of the kidnapping warrant never being dismissed is not strong enough to allow Donham’s arrest and her trial before a criminal judge.

“This warrant is a stepping stone toward that,” she said. “Because warrants do not expire, we want to see that warrant served on her.”

Many roadblocks exist. Witnesses have died in the decades since Till was lynched, and it’s unclear what happened to evidence collected by investigators. The original warrant’s location is unknown. The warrant could have been found in old records of Leflore County courthouses in Mississippi where it was abducted.

A relative of Till said it’s long past time for someone to arrest Donham in Till’s kidnapping, if not for the slaying itself.

“Mississippi is not the Mississippi of 1955, but it seems to still carry some of that era of protecting the white woman,” said Deborah Watts, a distant cousin of Till who runs the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.

Donham is now in her mid 80s and resides in Raleigh, North Carolina. Donham has not spoken publicly about calls to her prosecution. She did not seem to know she had been named in an arrest warrant in Till’s abduction until decades later, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who questioned her more than 15 years ago.

“I think she didn’t recall it,” he said. “She acted surprised.”

The Justice Department closed its most recent investigation of the killing in December, when the agency said Donham had denied an author’s claim that she had recanted her claims about Till doing something improper to her in the store where she worked in the town of Money. According to authorities, the author could not provide any transcripts or recordings in support of her allegation.

Watts stated that Till family members met with Dewayne Richardson (the lead prosecutor for Leflore County), in March. But, Watts was not satisfied. “There doesn’t seem to be the determination or courage to do what needs to be done,” she said.

Richardson, who has served in the office for approximately 15 years, was the first Black president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. For comment on a possible kidnapping case, Richardson didn’t return calls or email.

Keith Beauchamp, filmmaker. Emmett Louis till: The Untold History preceded a renewed Justice Department probe that ended without charges in 2007, said there’s enough evidence to prosecute Donham.

“If we’re saying we are a country of truth and justice, we must get truth and justice … no matter the age or gender of the person involved,’” said Beauchamp.

Stories about the events that led to Till’s killing have varied through the years, but the woman known at the time as Carolyn Bryant was always at the center of it, said author Devery Anderson, who obtained original FBI files on the case while researching his 2015 book Emmett till: The Murder That Shaked the World and Propelled Civil Rights Movement.

Till, who was 14 years old from Chicago and visiting family in Mississippi, entered the store Aug. 24, 1955. Donham (then 21) was also working there. Wheeler Parker who was there with Till at that time told The Associated Press Till whistled at the female. Donham said that Till grabbed the woman.

Two nights later, Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, showed up armed at the rural home of Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, looking for the youth.

Wright testified in 1955 that a person with a voice “lighter” than a man’s identified Till from inside a pickup truck and the abductors took him away. FBI files also reveal that Donham earlier in the night told her husband about two Black men who were not right for him.

Authorities already had obtained warrants charging the two men and Donham with kidnapping before Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, FBI files show, but police never arrested Donham.

“We aren’t going to bother the woman,” Leflore County Sheriff George Smith told reporters, “she’s got two small boys to take care of.”

Roy Bryant, and Milam were indicted quickly on murder charges. They were later acquitted in Tallahatchie County by an all-white jury two weeks later.

In neighboring Leflore County, grand jurors declined to indict these men for kidnapping. This effectively ended any threat of Roy Bryant and Milam facing prosecution. Donham, who is still alive and well after the deaths of both men, was the sole survivor.

Killinger, the retired federal agent, said he saw neither the original warrant during his investigation nor any indication that it was ever canceled by a court, and it’s unclear whether it could be used today to arrest or try Donham. He said that even if the authorities found original paperwork and sworn statements detailing evidence of it, they would need witnesses to prove their case.

“And it’s my understanding that all those people are dead,” Killinger said.


Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

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