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Who Is Carolyn Bryant Donham? 6 New Details About The Woman Who May Have Falsely Accused Emmett Till

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Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant Donham
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Carolyn Bryant Donham alleged that Till made advances toward her, ultimately leading to his murder.

On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River after being tossed in by two men while attached to a 75-pound cotton gin fan.

The two suspected killers, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were arrested and tried for the murder. Though they were identified in court by Till’s uncle, Mose Wright, a jury acquitted the men after less than one hour of deliberation. Bryant and Milam later admitted to the crime in an interview with Look Magazine.

Carolyn Bryant, Roy’s 21-year-old wife at the time, had alleged that Till flirted and made advances toward her, prompting the two men to retaliate against Till.

Since then, Carolyn appears to have retreated from public life. But a new book and a new investigation have thrust her back into the spotlight to help answer the question: who is Carolyn Bryant? Read on to find out all about where Carolyn is now, how she feels about the case, and why the case is being reopened.

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1. She’s still alive (though many other key players in the case are not).

Carolyn, now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham, will turn 84 years old this month. She reportedly divorced Roy Bryant sometime after the murder trial and has remarried twice since then.

Meanwhile, both accused killers died of cancer decades ago, Milam in 1981 and Roy Bryant in 1994. Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother who allowed his casket to remain open for public viewing and continued to speak out about the murder throughout her life, died in 2003 of kidney failure. And Juanita Milam, widow of J.W. Milam who stood by her husband during the trial, died in 2014.

2. Bryant accused 14-year-old Till of sexual assault.

Author and historian Timothy Tyson interviewed Bryant as part of his research for the book The Blood of Emmett Till back in 2008, and some of her comments in the interview have led to new speculation about what happened all those years ago.

According to Vanity Fair, Bryant's original story claimed that the young boy "grabbed" and "verbally threatened her," and reportedly told her that “he said [he had]’”—done something—“with white women before.’” Bryant told the court that she "was scared to death" of Till.

3. She (may have) admitted to lying about her accusations against Till.

According to Tyson’s book, Bryant revealed in the interview that some of her accusations against Till were not true. “That part’s not true,” Bryant is quoted as saying when asked about her allegations that Till made sexual advances toward her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

However, a report by Radar Online disputes this, claiming that Bryant’s original story hasn’t changed and that she knew nothing about the murder plot until after it happened. “This is not the first time this has happened, or third, but she has not ever changed her story — no matter what Mr. Tyson has said,” Bryant’s 63-year-old daughter Marsha Bryant told Radar Online. “Her story has always been her story. And it will continue to be that because it is the truth.”

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4. Bryant wrote a memoir.

Bryant herself has written a memoir, titled More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham, about her life and the incident. After receiving a copy of the unpublished memoir, Tyson gave it to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The memoir will not be available to the public until 2036.

5. She has reflected on her accusations and Till’s death.

In his book, Tyson wrote that Bryant admitted to feeling "tender sorrow" for her accusations and for Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Till-Mobley allowed and open casket at the funeral, and images of her son published by Jet Magazine are credited with having helped to spark the Civil Rights Movement.

Tyson’s book claims that Carolyn’s sorrow was deepened by the loss of her own son, because this event allowed her to identify with Till-Mobley and understand what she must have gone through.

6. Investigators are reopening the case.

As a result of Tyson’s book being published, investigators are reopening Till’s murder case. FBI officials contacted Tyson months after the book’s publication, and Tyson provided all of his research materials as requested by investigators’ subpoenas. In March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to Congress stating that the Till case would be reopened.  

The case was originally closed in 2007 after decades-long investigations led to no new charges.

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Roman Chiarello is a writer and aspiring journalist who is committed to helping others. He currently attends Pace University and resides in New Jersey.

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