White woman at centre of notorious Mississippi lynching case dies at 88

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Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused black teenager Emmett Till of making improper advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, has died at the age of 88.

She died on Tuesday night in hospice care in Westlake, Louisiana, according to a death report filed in Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office.

Emmett’s kidnapping and killing became a catalyst for the civil rights movement when his mother insisted on an open-coffin funeral in their home town of Chicago after his brutalised body was pulled from a river in Mississippi.

Emmett Till
Emmett Till (AP)

The Rev Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Emmett who was there, said the 14-year-old whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi’s racist social codes of the era.

Mr Parker is the last living witness to Emmett’s abduction. They were staying at an uncle’s home in Mississippi when Emmett was taken in the dark of night.

He said on Thursday that his heart goes out to Ms Donham, adding: “As a person of faith for more than 60 years, I recognise that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill-will or animosity toward her.

“Even though no one now will be held to account for the death of my cousin and best friend, it is up to all of us to be accountable to the challenges we still face in overcoming racial injustice.”

Evidence indicates a woman identified Emmett to her then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother JW Milam, who killed the teenager.

An all-white jury acquitted the two white men in the killing, but the men later confessed in an interview with Look magazine.

In an unpublished memoir obtained by the Associated Press in 2022, Ms Donham – who was 21 at the time of the killing – said she was unaware of what would happen to the 14-year-old.

The contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled I Am More Than A Wolf Whistle, were first reported by the Mississippi Centre for Investigative Reporting.

Historian and author Timothy Tyson, who said he obtained a copy from Ms Donham while interviewing her in 2008, provided a copy to the AP.

He said he decided to make it public now after the recent discovery of an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges that was issued for Ms Donham in 1955 but never served.

He added that Ms Donham’s precise role in the killing remains murky, but it is clear she was involved.

“It has comforted America to see this as merely a story of monsters, her among them,” he said.

“What this narrative keeps us from seeing is the monstrous social order that cared nothing for the life of Emmett Till nor thousands more like him. Neither the federal government nor the government of Mississippi did anything to prevent or punish this murder. Condemning what Donham did is easier than confronting what America was — and is.”

Ollie Gordon, a cousin of Emmett who was seven at the time, said she had mixed emotions about Donham’s death.

“She was never tried in the court of man,” Ms Gordon said. “But I think she was judged by God, and his wrath is more punitive than any judgment or penalty she could have gotten in a courtroom. I don’t think she had a pleasant or happy life.”

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