Still no justice for Emmett Till: On Carolyn Bryant Donham, accountability and who is seen as a wolf

Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was not indicted, claims she's "more than a wolf whistle." But Till was not a wolf

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published August 12, 2022 9:00AM (EDT)

Emmett Till Murder Case  - Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Milan (left) and Mr. and Mrs. Roy Bryant during trial (Getty Images/Bettmann)
Emmett Till Murder Case - Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Milan (left) and Mr. and Mrs. Roy Bryant during trial (Getty Images/Bettmann)

The system worked perfectly for Carolyn Bryant Donham, a white woman, as it usually does. 

Donham was the subject of an unserved warrant from almost 67 years ago, implicating her as a key figure in the case of Emmett Till's lynching. Last week, a grand jury in Leflore County, Mississippi, decided that the discovery of the unserved warrant, in combination with the other evidence presented, was not enough to indict Donham on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter. 

In August 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago teen, was visiting relatives in Mississippi. A few days after Till's arrival, he and his cousin Curtis Jones skipped church and went to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, the family store where Donham worked, for some candy. Donham accused Till of wolf whistling at her and touching her, which led to Till being taken, by Donham's husband Roy Bryant and brother-in-law J.W. Milam, from his great-uncle's house that night. 

The two monsters — who were acquitted by a jury, and then later confessed in a magazine interview — beat the young Black child into disfigurement, shot him in the head, strung barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck, and dumped his small, lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River, where he was found days later. Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was brave enough to give her son an open casket funeral, telling the funeral director, "Let the people see what I've seen." Her intention was to show the world exactly how disgusting, racist and unhinged her son's killers were. The images from Till's funeral, which were published in Jet Magazine, shocked the world and ignited the Civil Rights Movement.

Donham, now 87, has written an unpublished memoir titled, "I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle." In the manuscript, she wrote that she was unaware of what would happen to Till after Bryant and Milam took him from his uncle's home, even though it was the 1950s, and she was an adult, well aware of how Black people were treated in Mississippi and the level of danger her husband and brother-in-law posed to the child. I don't know, but I feel that Till couldn't have been the first Black person Bryant and Milam terrorized; killing a child on your first time seems extreme. Those guys had to be naturals. It would be impossible for Donham to not know that something really bad was going to happen to Till when her husband and brother-in-law had him — especially since she also claims she tried to protect him from them.

"I did not wish Emmett any harm and could not stop harm from coming to him, since I didn't know what was planned for him," Donham says in the manuscript, which was written with her daughter-in-law. "I tried to protect him by telling Roy that 'He's not the one. That's not him. Please take him home.'"

After 67 long years, she still won't take any accountably for her role in what happened to Till. Instead of acknowledging the blood on her hands, Donham has taken the opportunity to make it about herself — purifying her name, establishing her legacy — writing her version of the story in book, claiming that she tried to save the day, even though she is the doctor of the initial accusations. 

Donham's inability to understand her role in the history of violence against Black bodies is even evident in the title, "I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle." If I could sit down with Donham, I would ask her, "How good does it feel to tell your side of the story? Because Emmett didn't get to tell his, and you played a part in that."

What's worse is that Black boys and men are still in danger — including from women like Donham — in a world that only chooses to see us as the wolf. Even young Emmett, an innocent young boy known for cracking jokes, whom Donham claims she tried to save after setting her husband on him, was seen as the wolf. 

When will we stop being seen as and treated like the wolf?

I have dozens of stories of run-ins with the law in which I was unarmed and innocent, but still ended up with my face pressed against the concrete or folded up like a pretzel in the back of a patrol car or on the wrong side of an officer's pistol because people like Donham will forever see me as the wolf. 

Christian Cooper couldn't watch birds in peace because Amy Cooper was breaking the law but felt entitled to call the police on him after he confronted her. Christian is a Black man, so he was seen as the wolf. Michael Brown's body laid on the ground for four hours after Darren Wilson killed him because he looked like the wolf. George Zimmerman was not held accountable for killing Trayvon Martin because Martin, also a child, looked like the wolf. Derek Chauvin had no problem resting his knee on the back of George Floyd's neck for over nine minutes because Floyd looked like the wolf. Father and son duo Travis and Greg McMichael apparently didn't think twice about gunning down Ahmaud Arbery, because through their racist lens, he was also the wolf. 

When will we stop being seen as and treated like the wolf?

Donham may be "more than a wolf whistle" in her own eyes, and in the eyes of her family and friends. But not to me, nor to millions of Black people who have been hurt and continue to be hurt by her racist words and actions. If she wants to be perceived as more, then she needs to do more. Donham must know her actions ordered the death of a child, but she continues to refuse to admit it and turn herself in, as a person who truly wanted to make amends would. Nobody cares about another memoir from a person with a need to set the record straight. People care about justice — the kind of justice that Donham has robbed this country of for 67 years.

"Justice is not always locking somebody up and throwing the keys away," Ollie Gordon, Till's cousin, said in reaction to the Grand Jury's decision. "Ms. Donham has not gone to jail. But in many ways, I don't think she's had a pleasant life. I think each day she wakes up, she has to face the atrocities that have come because of her actions."

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Carolyn Bryant Donham Civil Rights Commentary Emmett Till Racism