In the draft memoir, Carolyn Bryant Donham claimed after she told her then-husband Roy Bryant that Emmett wasn’t the person she encountered in the store, the 14-year-old smiled and said, “Yes, it was me.”
Details revealed by Donham in the sealed draft memoir are raising new questions surrounding Emmett’s murder and the events before and after his death because of some contradictory statements she made at the time.
The memoir had been held for release until 2036 due to an agreement with Donham and historian Timothy Tyson at the University of North Carolina, which confirmed to CNN that it holds a collection including the Donham memoir.
Tyson says he provided the FBI the memoir to aid in its reexaminations of the case in 2017 and tells CNN he recently gave copies of the unpublished draft memoir to news outlets after the discovery of an unserved 1955 arrest warrant on kidnapping charges for Donham, Bryant and another man, found in a box of documents stored in a Mississippi courthouse basement.
“I decided that if there was going to be a re-investigation, that criminal justice outweighs the archival agreement,” Tyson tells CNN.
Tyson says he has not spoken to Donham since he interviewed her in 2008.
CNN has been unable to reach Donham for comment on the release of the unpublished draft memoir.
Emmett’s 1955 murder sparked global outrage and the lack of accountability continues to fuel the Till family’s fight for justice.
Retired FBI agent Dale Killinger, who investigated the murder in 2004-2005 for the FBI, says Donham’s statements in her memoir contradict what she told him during an interview. In a phone interview Saturday, Killinger said that Donham told him Emmett said nothing when Bryant brought the teen to her.
“She said Emmett didn’t say anything,” Killinger recalls of his interview with Donham. “She did say, in 2005, something to the effect of, ‘I couldn’t have identified him,’ so as far as I know she’s never said that she did state that the boy was Emmett Till,” Killinger said.
Killinger also spoke to CNN about the newly discovered warrant in the Till case.
“It means there was probable cause in 1955 to issue a warrant, we hadn’t known that had occurred. When I investigated back in 2004-5, we knew allegedly there was a warrant, but we didn’t have any record of it. I think I asked her, and she said she wasn’t aware of one,” he added.
Donham says in the draft memoir she learned of the warrant for her arrest from the FBI. “Decades later, when I was being interviewed by the FBI, I found out that there was also a warrant for my arrest, but they didn’t arrest me, in fact, at the time, they didn’t even tell me that there was a warrant. The FBI told me the warrant was for kidnapping. I was surprised when he showed it to me. The person that filed the kidnapping charges said there was a soft voice in the truck, but they didn’t see who it was. I guess the sheriff thought it was me. I was never arrested or charged with anything.”
The Till family attorney told CNN on Friday that they are aware of the unpublished draft memoir, titled “I Am More Than a Wolf Whistle,” and have mixed emotions.
“My thoughts as an advocate are that there’s a lot of information there that points to her culpability, and it should be used as new evidence of her culpability,” said Jaribu Hill, the family’s attorney.
“But at the same time, the memoir is just rife with making her look like the victim, making her look like someone who was a victim of the times, and clueless, but our position remains that she intentionally participated in the kidnapping.”
Tyson further addresses the arrest warrant, telling CNN: “The unserved warrant that Keith Beauchamp and his research team found in the courthouse basement provides an opportunity for prosecutors to brush aside the dust in history’s basement, illuminate the dark corners of the case, and decide whether there is any ground for an indictment. Two FBI investigations and a … Leflore County grand jury have already said that there is nothing prosecutable in the historical record. But that was before we knew about the warrant.”
As part of the South’s unwritten racial code, Black men and boys were forbidden from initiating interactions with White women. Emmett’s murder, and his mother’s insistence on publishing photographs of her son’s battered body, helped to spur the civil rights movement in America.
‘Morally untouchable’ in the South, professor says
Some scholars say the warrant and memoir reveal how gender roles and White supremacy intersected in the South in 1955. They say that Donham’s comfort and humanity as a White woman were prioritized over that of Till and his family.
Angie Maxwell, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, said the discovery of the un-served warrant speaks to some White women’s positions as “morally untouchable” in the antebellum and Jim Crow South.
“When something like this is recovered, it just shows what a role that White women in the South, in particular, played in upholding White supremacy and White vigilantism because she’s named on the warrant, but they don’t arrest her,” Maxwell said.
White supremacy in the South at the time was built on the notion that White women were innocent, sacred beings who needed to be protected from Black men, who were seen as a threat, Maxwell said. The role some White women play in maintaining White supremacy is often downplayed since they’re often not the direct perpetrators of racial violence, she said.
On September 4, 1955, just days after the warrant for Donham was dated, the Clarion Ledger, a local Mississippi newspaper, reported George Smith, the Leflore County Sheriff, to have said, “We aren’t going to bother the woman,” continuing, “she’s got two small boys to take care of.”
Maxwell says part of the mythology surrounding White supremacy that puts some White women on a pedestal is placing special status on their role as mothers. However, she says this same grace was not granted to Black mothers.
When Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, says she was “positive” it was her son, but the county sheriff presiding over the investigation disagreed, saying, “the whole thing looks like a deal made up by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” according to a September 1955 Clarion Ledger article.
The role of the press
The mainstream press at the time also exemplified the interplay of gender roles and White supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Maxwell said local news outlets sought to villainize Emmett in favor of putting Donham on a pedestal, rationalizing his murder by framing his alleged crimes against her as an egregious violation of Southern social norms.
In contrast to White-owned news outlets, the Black press played a crucial role in more nuanced coverage, said Trevy McDonald, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
White Southerners saw Black journalists, as well as White reporters from Northern cities, as “outside agitators” who were coming to Mississippi to create trouble by highlighting the reality of racial injustice in the region, McDonald said.
Initially, during the trial, the sheriff wasn’t going to allow Black reporters in the courtroom. Black reporters were only allowed in the courtroom after White journalists pushed for more inclusion, McDonald said. But Black journalists were still relegated to a corner of the courtroom and not given a place to sit, leading them to bring their own folding tables.
It was also the Black press that sought to humanize Emmett and emphasize who he was beyond his murder and the accusations against him.
At the request of the Till family, Hill said she submitted a letter to Mississippi Fourth Circuit Court District Attorney urging him to execute the warrant against Donham along with a copy of the arrest warrant and affidavit. The family was hoping to get a response within three days, but Hill said they have yet to hear back.
Hill also told CNN they also want to see the convening of a grand jury that would specifically address Donham’s culpability in Emmett’s murder.
“That would be justice in its truest form for us to see that, Hill said. “Also, justice would look like people being forced to do their duties, to actually let the system itself work on behalf of this young boy who was brutally lynched and nothing was done.”
CNN’s Devon Sayers contributed to this report.