Woman at center of Till lynching dies

Published 9:20 am Friday, April 28, 2023

This undated portrait shows Emmett Louis Till. (AP)

The woman tied to the infamous 1955 lynching of Emmit Till and whose presence in Bowling Green drew national protests in December has died at the age of 88.

Carolyn Bryant Dunham died Tuesday night in Westlake, Louisiana, according to a death report filed Thursday in Calcasieu Parish Coroner’s Office in Louisiana, the Associated Press reported.

Protesters from across the country descended on Bowling Green in December, calling for Donham to be brought to justice for the Till lynching. The protest produced a threat of a mass shooting of protesters, which led to the postponement of the city’s annual Christmas parade slated for the day.

Donham was at the time reported to be living in a Bowling Green apartment complex; but her current whereabouts were unknown until the news of her death.

The effort to prosecute Donham had escalated in recent years after the discovery last year of the unserved arrest warrant for Donham.

Donham was living in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and working at her family’s grocery store. She claimed at that time that 14-year-old Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting cousins, whistled at her when he came into the store. Her account of what Till did, or didn’t do, has changed over the years.

Days after the encounter, Till was abducted from a relative’s home, brutally tortured and killed, and his body was dumped in a river.

Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam were charged with murder, but they were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury. The two men, however, later confessed to the murder in a magazine interview.

After the unserved arrest warrant was found in the Leflore County, Mississippi, courthouse, there were renewed calls for Donham’s arrest. She was reportedly living for a time in North Carolina before being tracked to Bowling Green last summer.

Earlier this month, a Mississippi sheriff struck another blow against the effort, arguing in a court filing that a warrant should not be served on her because a grand jury failed to indict her on the charges.

In July, the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said there was no new evidence to pursue a criminal case against Donham, according to the Associated Press. In August, a district attorney said a Leflore County grand jury declined to indict Donham.

“Since the Grand Jury found no probable cause to indict Donham on the charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, there is no probable cause to support the 1955 Arrest Warrant,” Charles J. Swayze III, an attorney for Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks, wrote in court papers filed last week, according to the Associated Press.

Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling of Jackson, Mississippi, filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year related to the case.

Sterling, who came to Bowling Green for the December protest, was asking a court to force Banks to serve the warrant on Donham.

At the December protest, Sterling said that people “have no idea what our family has gone through.”

She said Donham has been protected by a system of white supremacy.

“We want (Donham) brought to justice, brought to trial,” she said.

Donham’s death this week makes the lawsuit moot.

– Follow Managing Editor Wes Swietek on Twitter @WesSwietek or visit bgdailynews.com.