Carolyn Bryant Donham Dies at 88; Her Words Doomed Emmett Till

Only two people knew exactly what happened during the minute they were alone together in the general store in Money, Miss., on Aug. 24, 1955. One, Emmett Till, a Black teenager visiting from Chicago, died four days later, at 14, in one of the most epochal murders in American history.

The other was Carolyn Bryant. She was the 21-year-old white proprietress of the store where, according to her testimony in the September 1955 trial of her husband and brother-in-law for the murder, Till made a sexually suggestive remark, grabbed her roughly by the waist and let loose a wolf whistle.

Now Ms. Bryant has died, at 88. Megan LeBoeuf, the chief investigator for the Calcasieu Parish coroner’s office in Louisiana, sent a statement confirming the death of Ms. Bryant, more recently known as Carolyn Bryant Donham, on Tuesday in Westlake, a small city in southern Louisiana. Ms. LeBoeuf did not provide further information.

With Ms. Donham’s death, the truth of what happened that August day may never be clear. More than half a century after the murder, she admitted that she had perjured herself on the witness stand to make Till’s conduct sound more threatening than it actually was — serving, in the words of the historian to whom she made the admission, as “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie.”

“She said with respect to the physical assault on her, or anything menacing or sexual, that that part isn’t true,” the historian, Timothy B. Tyson, told “CBS This Morning” in 2017.

But in an unpublished memoir that surfaced last year, Ms. Donham stood by her earlier description of events, though she said she had tried to discourage her husband from harming Till.

“He came in our store and put his hands on me with no provocation,” she wrote. “Do I think he should have been killed for doing that? Absolutely, unequivocally, no!”

The Till family said the account was rife with inaccuracies.

The murder of Emmett Till was a watershed in United States race relations. Coverage of the killing and its aftermath, including a widely disseminated photograph of Till’s brutalized body at his open-casket funeral, inspired anguish and outrage, helped propel the modern civil rights movement and ultimately contributed to the demise of Jim Crow.

A former beauty queen described in the news media as having been poor, unworldly and little educated in 1955, Mrs. Bryant, as she was known then, was very much a product of her time and place, as her trial testimony, given under oath, makes plain.

Describing him with a racial slur — as recorded in a trial transcript, long thought to have been lost, that resurfaced in 2004 — she said Till had come into the store and “put his left hand on my waist, and he put his other hand over on the other side.” She added, “He said, ‘What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?’”

Mrs. Bryant further testified that Till had made an obscene remark, which she refused to repeat in court, about his sexual prowess with white women. As news accounts reported afterward, her testimony carried the unmistakable implication that she feared being raped.

“I was just scared to death,” she testified.

Emmett Till with his mother, Mamie Bradley in about 1950. Credit…Alamy

After deliberating for little more than an hour, the all-white, all-male jury acquitted her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother J.W. Milam. Mrs. Bryant, who testified for the defense, was not charged.

Secure in the knowledge that double jeopardy would attach, the two men admitted the killing the next year in a Look magazine article for which they were paid. Mr. Milam died in 1980, Mr. Bryant in 1994.

Though Mrs. Bryant had testified without the jury present, her description of Till’s behavior was reprised by courtroom spectators and members of the press. As a result, it has endured in public memory as a canonical narrative of the events of that August night — long believed in some quarters, long doubted in others.

Then, in 2008, she admitted that she had fabricated the most inflammatory parts of her testimony — the assertions that Till had grabbed her roughly around the waist and had uttered a sexual obscenity — at the behest of defense lawyers and her husband’s family.

“You tell these stories for so long that they seem true,” she told Dr. Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University, that year. “But that part is not true.”

That interview became the foundation of Dr. Tyson’s nonfiction book, “The Blood of Emmett Till” (2017). Its disclosure of Mrs. Bryant’s fabrication made headlines around the world.

A complete obituary will follow soon.

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