Emmett Till was murdered 62 years ago Monday, but the woman at the center of his brutal lynching — which helped launch the civil rights movement — admitted years later that she made up the sensational claims that led to the teen’s death.
Carolyn Bryant Donham has never spoken publicly since she testified in the murder trial of her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, who were each acquitted less than a month after they kidnapped, tortured and executed the black boy.
After their acquittal, the pair proudly admitted what they’d done to Look magazine, saying they basically had no choice but to kill the teenager for behaving lasciviously toward Bryant’s wife.
But Donham, who later divorced Bryant and married twice more in the following years, admitted recently to author Timothy Tyson that she’d made up some of the claims that led to Till’s death, reported Vanity Fair.
Donham was 21 years old in 1955, when she spent about one minute alone with the 14-year-old Till, who was visiting family in Mississippi from Chicago, while working in the store she owned with her husband.
The teen, whose mother called him “Bo,” bragged to his cousin and some other boys that he had a white girlfriend back home — and the boys dared him to speak to the young woman working behind the counter.
A 12-year-old cousin briefly went inside but left Emmett alone with Donham for about a minute, and she later claimed Till had grabbed her and made lewd comments.
His cousin, Simeon Wright, recalled decades later that couldn’t have been possible — and, it turns out, he was right.
“That part’s not true,” Donham told Tyson, who conducted the first-ever interview with the elderly mother of two for a new book, The Blood of Emmett Till.
She also claimed Till had wolf-whistled at her, but Tyson notes that might not have been intentional because the boy had a lisp.
Donham claims she couldn’t remember any more of the rest of their brief encounter.
The interview was actually conducted in 2007, after Donham approached the Duke University scholar about helping to write her memoirs.
“That case went a long way toward ruining her life,” said Tyson, who said the Donham family reminded him of his own.
He said Donham’s views on race had changed over the years, along with much of the country’s.
“She was glad things had changed [and she] thought the old system of white supremacy was wrong, though she had more or less taken it as normal at the time,” Tyson said.
Donham told the author she “felt tender sorrow” toward Mamie Till-Mobley, who insisted on an open casket to show the world her son’s mutilated body, and she expressed something like regret about her role in his slaying.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Donham said.
Donham, who retreated back into seclusion, has also written a memoir, More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Story of Carolyn Bryant Donham, but it will not be available to scholars until 2038, at her request.