The early release of Carolyn Bryant Donham’s self-exonerating memoir was certainly a bombshell.
But does it do much to advance the cause of those who zealously want her prosecuted as an accomplice in the 1955 murder of Emmett Till?
I don’t think so.
The memoir was supposed to remain secret for another 14 years, but veteran Mississippi investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell was able to obtain a copy of it. The same day Mitchell broke his story, another copy was provided to Jay Reeves of The Associated Press, who has written extensively about the horrendous case of racial injustice that helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
I have only seen excerpts of Donham’s retelling of what she claims happened at the grocery store in Money that led to Till’s abduction and murder by her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam.
But what I’ve seen sounds untrue, at least about some of the critical details. Most unconvincing is Donham’s claim that she was the one scared, not Till, when her husband brought the 14-year-old boy to her to be identified, that she tried to protect Till, and that Till outed himself to his eventual killers as the one who had been fresh with Donham.
Till may have been a brave soul, but it’s hard to picture a 14-year-old who wouldn’t be scared out of his wits after being abducted in the middle of the night by much larger and armed men. That would be the case today. It would definitely have been the case almost 70 years ago, when white folks could get away with all manner of mistreatment of Blacks, even murder, to enforce racial segregation and white supremacist codes, one of the strictest being for Black men to stay away from white women.
Donham, who is 87 now, may have been trying to salve her conscience when she produced the 100-page memoir in 2009, apparently with the help of a daughter-in-law.
A few years before that, she had been the focus of a renewed investigation by the FBI, whose evidence was presented in 2007 to a racially mixed Leflore County grand jury that declined to indict Donham on a manslaughter charge.
Should this memoir, and the recent unearthing of a never-served kidnapping indictment, spur another attempt to prosecute Donham, it would have the same troubles that previous efforts have encountered.
Almost all the witnesses are dead, and Donham is sticking to her story that she never identified Till as the person who allegedly made advances at her.
Donham’s credibility admittedly isn’t the best. The retired FBI agent who interviewed her more than 15 years ago has accused her of lying. She has given inconsistent accounts of what Till said and did in Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. She also clearly misremembers the trial at which her husband and brother-in-law were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that was more concerned about the breaking of a Southern taboo than the evidence of a brutal, premeditated murder.
In her memoir, Donham said that she recalled looking into the face of Till’s mother when the “not guilty” verdict was read. Problem is, as Mitchell reports, Mamie Till Mobley didn’t stay for the verdict.
But false memories or wildly embellishing on the truth is not a criminal offense, unless it’s done under oath and can be proven within a reasonable period of time. To make a 67-year-old manslaughter case stick, prosecutors would have to prove that Donham not only identified Till to his killers but that she knew at the time that he would come to a bad end by her doing so.
The FBI and the local district attorney’s office weren’t successful in proving these accusations the first time they looked at her case. They didn’t even try to take it to a grand jury the second time. A third attempt might get an indictment, depending on the prosecutor’s slant in presenting the evidence, but a conviction would be much less probable.
Nor does there seem to be a great appetite for pursuing a trial, given Donham’s age. The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office was much less excited about the memoir than the reporters who broke the story. And the district attorney who would be in charge of a prospective prosecution, Dewayne Richardson, has not been saying anything publicly about the possibility.
Gary Woody, a Greenwood businessman who served on the 2007 grand jury, was correct, though, when he observed that the clamor to imprison someone for Till’s murder will not abate as long as Donham lives.
“I don’t think this case is ever going to die until she dies,” he said.
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or email@example.com.