Emmett Till Relatives Face Slim Odds In Pursuit of Justice Against Accuser, Carolyn Bryant

Relatives of Emmett Till and activists are advocating another possible way toward accountability for Carolyn Bryant. However, there are roadblocks to this path.

Emmett Till

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The Pursuit For Justice

Relatives of Emmet Till and activists are advocating another possible path toward accountability for Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused the 14-year-old boy of whistling at her, prompting her husband to murder the child.

The Till family wants authorities to launch a kidnapping prosecution against Bryant, who played a part in the brutal murder by accusing the Black Chicago teen of sexual harassment in 1955.

Carolyn Bryant Donham was named 67 years ago in a warrant that accused her of Till’s abduction, before Till’s body was found, FBI records revealed.

However, she was never arrested or brought to trial. The authorities at the time said the woman had two young children and they did not want to bother her. 

“We aren’t going to bother the woman,” Leflore County Sheriff George Smith told reporters at the time, “she’s got two small boys to take care of.”

Till’s relatives ultimately prefer a murder prosecution, but there is no evidence that the kidnapping warrant was ever dismissed. Therefore, it could be used to arrest Donham and get her before a criminal court, said Jaribu Hill, an attorney working with the Till family.

“This warrant is a stepping stone toward that,” she said. “Because warrants do not expire, we want to see that warrant served on her.”

Although this is a possibility that could come to fruition, there are several complications. Witnesses have died in the decades since the lynching, causing uncertainty about the fate of the evidence collected by investigators. In addition, where the original warrant is located is unknown.

“Mississippi is not the Mississippi of 1955, but it seems to still carry some of that era of protecting the white woman,” said Deborah Watts, a distant cousin of Till who runs the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.

Bryant, who is in her late 80s and most recently living in Raleigh, North Carolina, had not commented on calls for her prosecution and seemed unaware she was named in an arrest warrant until decades later, said Dale Killinger, a retired FBI agent who questioned her more than 15 years ago.

“I think she didn’t recall it,” he said. “She acted surprised.”

In March, Till’s relatives met with officials that included District Attorney Dewayne Richardson, the lead prosecutor in Leflore County, but left dissatisfied, Watts said. “There doesn’t seem to be the determination or courage to do what needs to be done,” she said.

Killinger stated he said he saw neither the original warrant during his investigation nor any indication that it was ever canceled. He also said it is unclear whether it could be used today to arrest or try Donham. The retired agent also said that even if authorities located the original paperwork with sworn statements detailing evidence, courts need witnesses to testify. 

“And it’s my understanding that all those people are dead,” Killinger said.

The Anti-Lynching Bill

On Monday, February 28, Congress overwhelmingly passed anti-lynching legislation, 422-3, that would officially make lynching a hate crime. Except for 3 Republicans.

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act [HR 55],  named after Emmett Till, was introduced by Rep. Bobby L. Rush. The bill aims to amend section 249 of title 18 of the United States Code to specify lynching as a hate crime act and anyone who conspires to commit such an act resulting in death or serious bodily injury shall be punished by up to 30 years in jail.

President Biden signed the bill into law on March 29.