Carolyn Bryant Donham’s legacy is “one of dishonesty and injustice” that “verifies that Mississippi coddles and protects white supremacy,” a lawyer for Emmett Till’s cousin Priscilla Sterling said in a statement after news of her death broke on Thursday.
Sterling filed a federal lawsuit in February attempting to force the Leflore County sheriff to enforce an unserved arrest warrant for Donham over the abduction of Till, who was 14 when her husband and another white man kidnapped and lynched him in August 1955 after she claimed he whistled at her.
Donham’s death ended any possibility that anyone involved in Till’s racist lynching would ever face justice; an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam for the murder in September 1955. She stood by her husband during the trial, later admitting that her husband brought Till to her at their house before killing him. Both men later admitted to the slaying in a paid interview with Look magazine but died free men without ever facing accountability for the murder.
After the lynching in Money, Miss., and the justice system’s failures, Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley made his death a rallying cry that helped propel the civil rights movement. Last year, a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Donham after two Till family members and the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation found the warrant in a courthouse basement.
News of Donham’s death drew reactions from across the nation, including from Till’s family members, organizations devoted to fighting racial injustice and even the White House.
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., a cousin who counted Emmett Till as a childhood best friend, expressed sympathy to Donham’s family on Thursday.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Carolyn Bryant Donham. As a person of faith for more than 60 years, I recognize that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her,” he said in a statement. “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.”