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Commentary: Carolyn Bryant Donham death reopens old wounds from Emmett Till Case

Two white men lynched Emmett Till, 14, after a white woman accused him of whistling at her in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955. Photo courtesy National Museum of African American History and Culture

The death of Carolyn Bryant Donham on April 27, 2023, marked the passing of the woman whose accusations were central to the lynching of Emmett Till, a case that sparked a nationwide debate about racial justice in America.


Donham, a white woman, accused Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, of whistling at her in a family grocery store in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955. In response, two white men, including her husband Roy Bryant, brutally beat the boy to death and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighing it down with a cotton gin fan. An all-white jury declined to convict either man, though they later admitted to the murder in a paid magazine interview.

A grand jury declined to indict Donham last year following the discovery of an unserved warrant for her arrest in Till’s abduction, and her death reopens old wounds for the family and all of Black America simply because justice never came.


Donham’s death serves as a reminder of the injustices of the past, a reminder of the dangers of racism and the need to ensure that no one ever has to experience something like the Till case ever again. America is a country with a profound history of systemic racial discrimination and injustice. As complicated as Till’s murder might seem, it is unresolved, not because America does not have all it needs to serve justice, but because it has a failed justice system built to favor only white people.


“The good old American judicial system has failed us yet again. Now Carolyn Bryant Donham will face her maker,” American filmmaker Keith Beauchamp said in response to the news of Donham’s death. From 1955 until her death, Donham evaded arrest for her role in Till’s abduction and brutal murder.


Till’s death sparked a nationwide conversation about the echoes of racial injustice in the United States and ultimately spurred the civil rights movement to combat the injustices that have been a part of American society and culture for centuries.


We must remind ourselves of the countless others who have been victims of racial injustice and we must continue to fight for justice and equity today. We must recognize that Donham’s death is a sobering reminder of our past, but it’s also a clarion call to continue to press forward in our fight toward healing, understanding and justice. It is important to acknowledge that racial injustice still exists in many forms, including police brutality, systemic racism and racial discrimination.


The fight for justice and equity must continue until all individuals are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their race or ethnicity.


Duvalier Malone is the author of "Those Who Give A Damn: A Manual for Making a Difference," a motivational speaker, community activist, and CEO of Duvalier Malone Enterprises, a global consulting firm. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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