After death of Emmett Till’s accuser, Chicago-area cousin fears no one will be held accountable

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin and best friend, was with Till in Mississippi and in the room when he was abducted.

Till’s kidnapping and lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. But when it was announced Thursday that the woman whose accusations led to Till’s slaying had died, Parker extended grace.

"Our hearts go out to the family of Carolyn Bryant Donham," Parker, of Summit, Illinois, said in a statement. "As a person of faith for more than 60 years, I recognize that any loss of life is tragic and don’t have any ill will or animosity toward her.

"Even though no one now will be held to account for the death of my cousin and best friend, it is up to all of us to be accountable to the challenges we still face in overcoming racial injustice."

Donham — a white woman who accused Till, a Black teenager from Chicago, of wolf-whistling at her before he was lynched in Mississippi — died in hospice care in Louisiana on Tuesday, a coroner’s report shows. She was 88.

Till traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. Donham — then named Carolyn Bryant — accused him of wolf-whistling at her in a grocery store.

Evidence indicates Donham identified Till to her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. The two men then kidnapped, tortured and shot him in the head. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men in the killing, but the men later confessed in an interview with Look magazine the following year.

Christopher Benson, a lawyer and Northwestern University journalism professor, wrote along with Parker, "A Few Days Full of Trouble," a book released in January that chronicles Till’s life and the investigations into Donham’s part in his murder.

Benson lamented the end of a quest for accountability in the case.


"It’s regrettable that Carolyn Bryant Donham died without ever taking responsibility for her role in the brutal lynching of Emmett Till," Benson said Thursday.

"Rev. Parker and I participated in the FBI investigation over the course of four years and had exclusive access to a lot of the documentation that helped us connect the dots to link Carolyn Bryant to that horrible crime."

Donham has received renewed attention in the years since Till was lynched, including investigations conducted by the Justice Department and FBI.

Last year, a grand jury in Mississippi, after hearing seven hours of testimony, declined to indict Donham on charges of kidnapping or manslaughter.

An unserved arrest warrant from 1955 for Donham, charging her in Till’s kidnapping, was discovered in a Mississippi courthouse last year. The warrant had a two-year statute of limitations.

"If there was probable cause to issue that warrant and to name her in that warrant back then, that probable cause disappeared over time. So it was impossible to bring her to account," Benson said.

"We certainly would have wanted her to be arrested and tried for her connection to the crime. But all of that was was covered up back in 1955 by people who did not want to see accountability in this case."

The failures of the justice system in 1955 were deliberate attempts to deny any kind of accountability for what happened to Till, Benson said.

"There could never be justice for Emmett Till. Justice would have been that Emmett would have come home alive in 1955 and intact," Benson said. "But there could be accountability. And sadly, nobody who’s responsible for his death will be held to account."

But even without that accountability, Benson said, there’s a responsibility to continue sharing what happened to Till.

"The Emmett Till story is about more than the horrible loss of this beautiful, young life. It’s about a structure of power in this country that some people will fight to the death to protect." Benson said.

"We are going to continue to tell the story of Emmett Till because we will have the last word on this because Carolyn Bryant Donham did not speak up."

Contributing: Associated Press