A white woman whose discredited accusations against Black teenager Emmett Till led to his lynching in 1955 has died in Louisiana, according to a coroner’s report.
Till’s murder in Mississippi helped ignite the Civil Rights movement, in part because his mother held an open-casket funeral, with a photo of her son’s badly disfigured body appearing in Black media at the time.
Carolyn Bryant Donham, 88, died on Tuesday in Westlake, Louisiana, according to the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office. She was the last living person directly involved in the case.
Till, visiting from Chicago, was beaten, shot and mutilated in Money, Mississippi, on Aug. 28, 1955, four days after Donham, then 21, accused him of whistling at her.
Till’s death and an all-white jury’s dismissal of charges against two white men who later confessed to his killing drew national attention to the atrocities and violence that African Americans faced in the U.S.
Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were charged in Till’s murder and put on trial in 1955. The all-white jury acquitted both men after Donham testified that Till had grabbed her waist and made sexual remarks while at the general store she ran.
The men later confessed in a paid magazine interview that they killed Till. Bryant died in 1994 and Milam died in 1981.
In 2021, the U.S. Justice Department closed its reopened investigation into Donham’s role in the murder following the publication of a book whose author wrote that Donham had said she lied about Till making sexual advances. The department said it could not prove Donham had lied – though it added that there was “considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events.”
In 2022, a grand jury in Mississippi declined to indict her for kidnapping or manslaughter. A few weeks before the grand jury’s decision, a 1955 arrest warrant for Donham on a charge of kidnapping Till, which had never been served, was located.