Emmett Till was murdered 65 years ago Friday, 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 then went on to marry twice more, admitted a few years ago to author Timothy Tyson that she'd made up some of the claims that led to Till's death.
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,” had 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 the white woman 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 his 2017 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 told the author she couldn't remember any other details from their brief encounter.
The young woman told her 24-year-old husband about the incident when he returned home from a business trip a couple of days later, and Roy Bryant and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, went early on Aug. 28, 1955, to the home of Emmett’s great-uncle and kidnapped the boy.
“My mother came in there pleading with them not to take Emmett,” recalled Till's cousin Simeon Wright, who had been sleeping alongside his cousin. “At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea, but J.W. Milam — he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, (and) he wouldn’t hear of it. He continued to have Emmett put his clothes on. Then, after Emmett was dressed, they marched him out of the house into a truck that was waiting outside. When they got out to the truck, they asked the person inside the truck, ‘Was this the right boy.’ A lady’s voice responded that it was.”
Wright died in September 2017 at age 74.
The two men pistol-whipped Emmett in a tool shed and then forced him to carry a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to the back of the Tallahatchie River, where they ordered him to strip off his clothes.
The men continued beating Emmett, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and dumped his body — tied to the cotton-gin fan with barbed wire — into the river.
His mutilated body was recovered three days later, and his great-uncle was able to identify his remains only by spotting an initialed ring the boy had worn.
Local authorities tried to quickly bury his body, but Emmett’s mother, Mamie Bradley, requested her son’s remains be sent home to Chicago — where she held an open-casket funeral and asked Black magazines to show the world what had happened to her son.
Fifty-thousand mourners saw Emmett Till's mutilated remains at the funeral in church in Chicago's South Side, and shocking photos published by Jet magazine of his mangled body shocked white and Black Americans alike -- and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
The interview with Donham was actually conducted in 2007, after she approached Tyson, a 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.