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Emmett Till and the 1955 warrant for Carolyn Bryant Donham's arrest

John Barnett and Nathaniel Cox near Carolyn Bryant Donham sign
Leoneda Inge
/
WUNC
John Barnett holds a flyer he is distributing, asking the Raleigh community to help him find Carolyn Bryant Donham. Barnett and Rev. Nathaniel Cox, right, say Donham needs to pay for her role in the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till, back in 1955. Photo taken July 28, 2022

In August 1955, Chicago teenager Emmett Till died a gruesome death. The Black boy was lynched, while visiting family in Mississippi. No one has ever been convicted of the crime, but an unserved warrant was recently discovered for Carolyn Bryant Donham.

This month marks 67 years since Emmett Till was brutally murdered and lynched, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The Black teenager, who lived in Chicago, was on summer vacation in Money, Mississippi when it happened.

Last week, outside the legislative building in Raleigh, a small group of activists, or "foot soldiers," pulled out "Wanted" signs.

"And we need her locked up!" said John Barnett. "So Mrs. Carolyn Donham, you have now been put on notice that you are 'wanted' by Mississippi and more importantly, Raleigh, North Carolina."

Barnett of Charlotte is the founder of THUG – True Healing Under God. He is convinced that Donham, the white woman who said she was disrespected by Till and allegedly helped her husband and brother-in-law find and murder him, is still alive.

"It’s amazing they can go to the moon, but they can’t find Carolyn Bryant Donham," said Barnett. "She’s still alive, we haven’t had a funeral service for her. So I wonder, where is she?"

The Rev. Nathaniel Cox of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, joined Barnett in prayer outside the legislative building. Cox says his prayers are for Till and all Black boys who have not gotten the justice they deserve.

"God, right now, all over our nation and all over the world God, just like out the book of Revelation, we cry out, how long? How long will we suffer?" said Cox. "God, how long God, will we suffer under the weight of systemic racism, God?"

The search for Donham picked up steam in two months ago. That is when a group of people, including Till’s family members, found the unserved 1955 warrant for Donham’s arrest. It was in the basement of the Leflore County, Mississippi courthouse.

On NPR’s "All Things Considered," a representative for the Till family by the name of Jaribu Hill told host Ari Shapiro, that they want the warrant served, and that it did not matter if Donham was close to 90 years old.

"Emmett Till is laying in his grave at 14-years-old," said Hill. "For 67 years, Carolyn Donham Bryant has been allowed to escape even real interrogation, let alone prosecution."

Tim Tyson is a senior research scholar at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and author of the book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.” The book is based on his 2008 interview with Donham.

Tyson is believed to be the only person who has interviewed Donham on the record, since 1955.

"All she confessed to, to me, was that with respect to Emmett Till putting his hands on her, there being anything physical, sexual about their encounter at the store, she said that part is not true," said Tyson.

The perjured testimony likely helped guarantee that no one was convicted in Till’s murder. In the Jim Crow South, it could mean death for a Black man if he "disrespected" a white woman, let alone touched her. Tyson said in his interview, there was nothing prosecutable revealed, but the recently discovered arrest warrant is relevant.

Donham was in her 70s when Tyson interviewed her in Raleigh. She was in town for medical care and staying with her son and daughter-in-law. Tyson says he tried to interview Donham a second time, in 2010.

"Her daughter-in-law said she wasn’t well enough to have an interview either cognitively or emotionally," said Tyson.

Still, activists like Barnett continue to go door-to-door in Raleigh, handing out wanted flyers in communities he believes Donham has lived.

"Pretty much our goal is to pass out flyers to make awareness to the fact that if she is not here, she did once stay here, and you never know who lives right next door to you," said Barnett.

But Donham may have moved on. A TikTok post by community organizer Marquise Hunt says she has been found. The video features a picture of an older white woman with oxygen tubes in her nostrils.

"Carolyn Bryant Donham is still alive and has been spotted in Kentucky for the first time in 20 years," said Hunt.

Tyson says most, if not all of the witnesses in the Till case have passed on, except for Donham. Till family members say they want Leflore County Mississippi district attorney, W. Dewayne Richardson to serve Donham with the newly found warrant. They also want him to assemble a grand jury, conduct a full investigation and put Donham on trial for her role in the kidnapping of Till.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s office said they would not be prosecuting Donham because there was no new evidence in the case.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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