DURHAM, North Carolina — The white woman who accused black teenager Emmett Till of making inappropriate advances before he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 says she neither identified him with the killers nor intended him to be murdered.
In an unpublished memoir obtained by The Associated Press, Carolyn Bryant Donham says she was unaware of what would happen to 14-year-old Till, who was living in Chicago and visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, killed and thrown into a river. Now 87, Donham was just 21 at the time. Her then-husband Roy Bryant and half-brother JW Milam were acquitted of the murder charges, but later confessed in a magazine interview.
The contents of the 99-page manuscript, titled “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle,” was first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Durham historian and author Timothy Tyson, who said he obtained a copy from Donham during an interview with her in 2008, provided a copy to the AP on Thursday.
Tyson had placed the manuscript in an archive at the University of North Carolina with the agreement that it would not be made public for decades, although he said he gave it to the FBI during an investigation that the agency concluded in 2007. He said he decided to make it now public following the recent discovery of a kidnapping warrant which was issued for Donham in 1955 but did not never served.
“The potential for an investigation was bigger than the archival agreements, although those are important things,” Tyson said. “But this is probably the last chance for indictment in this case.”
In the memoir, Donham says she tried to help Till once he was located by her husband and brother-in-law and brought in in the middle of the night for identification.
“I wished Emmett no harm and could not prevent harm from befalling him, as I did not know what was planned for him,” Donham says in the manuscript compiled by his daughter-in-law. “I tried to protect him by telling Roy that ‘It’s not him. It’s not him. Please take him home.'” She claims in the manuscript that Till, who had been dragged from a family home at gunpoint in the middle of the night, spoke up and identified himself.
Donham adds that she “always felt like a victim as well as Emmett” and “paid dearly with an altered life” for what happened to her.
“I have always prayed for God to bless Emmett’s family. I am so sorry for the pain his family has caused,” she says at the end of the manuscript, which is signed “Carolyn” but indicates that it was written by his stepdaughter Marsha Bryant.
The memoir is notable not only because it is the most comprehensive account of the sensational episode ever recorded by Donham, but also because it contains contradictions that raise questions about its veracity over the years, a said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who investigated the case further. than 15 years ago.
For example, Donham claims in the memoir that he screamed for help after being confronted by Till inside the family grocery store in Money, Mississippi, but no one ever reported hearing his screams, Killinger said. Additionally, Donham has never previously mentioned that she and Roy Bryant discussed the kidnapping. In the manuscript, she says they did.
“It sounds ridiculous,” Killinger said. “How could you have a major event in your life and not talk about it?”
The Justice Department closed its final investigation into the case in December, and Mississippi authorities have given no indication that they plan to pursue the kidnapping warrant or other charges against Donham. But the Till family pushes the authorities to act.
Keith Beauchamp, a filmmaker whose documentary preceded the Justice Department investigation Killinger was involved in that ended without charge in 2007, said the memoirs show Donham “is guilty of the kidnapping and of the murder of Emmett Louis Till and not to hold her accountable for her actions, is an injustice to all of us.
“Our fight will continue until justice is finally served,” Beauchamp said.
It was Beauchamp, along with two of Till’s relatives, who discovered the arrest warrant bearing Donham’s name earlier this month in the basement of a Mississippi courthouse.
Tyson, the historian who provided the roughly 35,000-word manuscript to the AP, helped spur the government’s latest investigation into the murder by publishing a book in 2017 in which he quoted Donham as saying she had lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled her, and made sexual advances. In the memoir, however, she claims that Till did these things. During the most recent investigation, Donham told the FBI she never recanted, the Justice Department said.
Tyson said Donham’s statements in the memoir exculpating himself of wrongdoing should be taken with “a good-sized shovel full of salt”, particularly his assertion that Till identified with the men who identified him taken from the family home and later admitted to killing him.
“Two tall white men with guns came and dragged him out of his aunt and great uncle’s house at 2 a.m. in the Mississippi Delta in 1955. I don’t believe for a minute that he identified himself,” Tyson said. .
Neither Donham nor any of his relatives responded to messages and phone calls from the AP seeking comment. It is not known where Donham currently lives or if she has an attorney. His last known address was in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Alabama. He is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.