By: April Carson
After a team searching for new evidence into the notorious lynching found an unserved warrant for her that was never executed, the family of Emmett Till is demanding that the woman connected to his kidnapping be arrested.
"We want justice for Emmett Till," said Deborah Watts, a cousin of the 14-year-old who was abducted, beaten and killed in Mississippi in 1955. "And if that means arrest warrants being served nearly 65 years later, then so be it."
The search team, which included two of Till's relatives and members of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, discovered a warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham's arrest — identified as "Mrs. Roy Bryant" on the document - in a file folder at a Mississippi courthouse last week, according to Leflore County Circuit Clerk Elmus Stockstill.
Donham, who is White, accused the 14-year-old Till of making improper advances at a Dollar, Mississippi, family business in August 1955, which sparked a chain reaction that resulted in Till's lynching. Donham was married to Roy Bryant, one of the two White men acquitted weeks after Emmett Till's murder when prosecutors couldn't prove that he had committed a crime.
Although the papers are arranged by decades, it's unclear where the warrant, dated August 29, 1955, was for all these years. After finding the warrant on June 21, Stockstill declared it genuine according to the Associated Press.
“They confined it to the ’50s and '60s, and got lucky,” Stockstill remarked.
A search warrant from the State of Mississippi has been published by the Mississippi Free Press. It reads, “We order you to take the body of J W Milam, Roy Bryant, and Mrs. Roy Bryant if they are discovered in your county ... to answer the state of Mississippi on a charge of kidnaping.” Next to Milam's and Roy Bryant's names, check marks have been made; Donham is not one among them , identified as "Mrs. Roy Bryant."
According to public records, the announcement of the finding prompted family and long-time supporters to demand Donham's arrest, who is in her late 80s and has most recently resided in North Carolina. Because police never delivered the order, she may still be arrested by law enforcement.
Till's relatives Deborah and Teri Watts had previously delivered a petition to Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R) asking for Donham's indictment in connection with Till's abduction. In December, the Justice Department announced that it was ending its inquiry into Till's lynching.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation launched a campaign on Monday to demand that the Department of Justice execute the warrant immediately. "Emmett's legacy must be protected!" it tweeted.
“Serve it and charge her,” Teri Watts advised the AP. Finding the warrant was new evidence, she said. The state of Mississippi needs to move ahead with this, according to Teri Watts.
The FBI and the Monticello Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. Donham, Stockstill, the Justice Department, and Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks were also unresponsive.
While a 1955 warrant would probably not stand up if served today, new evidence might provide a stronger argument for the finding of the document, according to Ronald J. Rychlak, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
"If there's something new, then it would be entirely different," Rychlak said. "But if all they're doing is trying to revive old evidence, that would be a much tougher battle."
The warrant was found as Emmett Till's family continues its fight for justice. In July, Donham was identified as the woman who falsely accused Till of whistling at her in a store in 1955. Donham has never been charged in connection with his death.
In September, the Justice Department reopened its investigation into his murder. The department has not released any information about the status of that investigation.
“If they want to go forward with this case, they presumably have everything they had in 1955 plus some more. If you believe that there is probable cause and suspicion for a crime now, you might be able to go before a court today or tomorrow and obtain a new arrest warrant. The warrant does not provide us with fresh substantive proof of her involvement in the crime, but it does show that she was considered a suspect at one time and that a judge found there was enough cause to arrest her.”
In August 1955, Till visited relatives in Mississippi for the summer, where he would stay with his great-uncle Moses Wright. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, who was raised and born in rural Mississippi, advised her son that the state was rife with racism and urged him to obey his family.
According to Time, she warned him, "You must be very careful ... to humble yourself and get down on your knees." “He didn't know anything about living in Chicago,” she explained of his murder at the hands of his accomplices.
Tills' relatives went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi, a few days after his arrival to buy candy. According to stories, Till whistled at Donham before Carolyn Bryant, who worked there.
"Emmett went into the store, asked for some bubble, and left after telling the women ‘goodbye,'” according to Till's 16-year-old cousin Maurie Wright in a United Press dispatch published September 1, 1955. “Outside, Emmett made a ‘wolf call.' I advised Emmett to be cautious about what he said inside the shop.”
On August 28, 1955, the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, went to Till's great-uncle's house and demanded that he come out according to a 2007 Associated Press story.
According to PBS, Moses "pleaded with the men to leave Emmett alone." “'He's only 14,' [Moses] said. 'Why not give the boy a whipping and be done with it?'” His wife, Elizabeth Wright, "offered money to the intruders, but they ordered her back to bed.” Emmett is from up North.
Emmett's uncle "led the men throughout his house with flashlights until they discovered Emmett sleeping in a bed," according to the PBS account. “They woke him up and told him to get dressed.”
The men took Emmett outside, where "one of the men grabbed a 75-pound cotton gin fan blade and hit Emmett on the head."
"I'm going to kill you," one of the men said, according to PBS.
The men then drove him to the Tallahatchie River and ordered him to get into the back of their pickup truck.
"They ordered him to take his clothes off. One of them said, 'We're going to make an example out of you,'" according to PBS.
On the fourth day, a cotton-gin fan was discovered around Till's neck in the Tallahatchie River, presaging his murder.
On September 19, 1955, Bryant and Milam were charged with murder and tried in Sumner, Mississippi. After about an hour of discussions, a White all-male jury found Bryant and Milam not guilty on the fifth day of their trial, shocking the globe.
There have been several attempts to revisit the case in recent years, including when the Department of Justice reopened it. Although Leflore County District Attorney Joyce Chiles presented charges against Donham before a grand jury in 2007, she did not indict her for the murder of Till. No one was ever convicted of Till's murder.
More than 60 years after the murder, Donham exposed that she lied about her encounter with Till. In his book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” published in 2017, Timothy B. Tyson, a professor at Duke University, wrote that Donham stated in an interview that Till did not make a sexual advance towards her. Her statement contradicted her previous testimony before a jury, when she said he had grabbed her waist and made lewd comments to her.
The Justice Department said on Thursday that Donham would not be charged, noting that “the government does not take the position that the state court testimony the woman gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate.” With regard to her assertions before the FBI, Donham informed them that she had never recanted and there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI.”
According to the Justice Department, “there is still a lot of uncertainty about her story's credibility, which has been contradicted by other people who were present at the time, including a live witness” in a December 2021 news release.
Donham has still not been arrested, though both Milam and Bryant are deceased. Donham's family and supporters, on the other hand, have pushed for her arrest. According to the Free Press, filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who directed the 2005 documentary "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," said in a talk at Southern University that he thought a warrant for Donham existed for years before the discovery of the document.
“Carolyn will be the next target,” Beauchamp continued. “She must be held responsible for her involvement in the kidnapping and murder of my kids.”
Till's family has continued to call for justice in his case, and the recent discovery of the unserved warrant has only added fuel to their fire.
“It's unique and amazing that a document would surface this much later,” said Rachlak, the Ole Miss law professor.
“I'm not aware of anything even remotely comparable to this,” he continued.
Many people on social media demanded Donham's arrest as the news of the arrest warrant spread. Among them was Shuwaski Young, a Democratic congressional candidate from Oklahoma who urged authorities to "act promptly and harshly."
"Time has come for the law to take its course," he stated.
Beauchamp, who was one of the searchers who discovered the papers, believes that charges may be filed nearly seven decades after Till's assassination.
“It's not over until it's over...” Beauchamp tweeted. “There's still a lot of work to do.”
The FBI recently reopened its investigation into the case after receiving "new information."
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