Cousin of Emmett Till Sues to Compel Sheriff to Arrest White Woman, 88, Whose 1955 Interaction With Boy Preceded His Lynching

A cousin of Emmett Till, the young black boy lynched in 1955 for approaching a white woman in Mississippi, filed suit in federal court demanding that a recently discovered arrest warrant from the era be served on the woman.

Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 when he was brutally killed.

Accounts of the events differ, but witnesses said Till whistled at a white woman, now known as Carolyn Bryant Donham, at a store. Donham testified at trial that Till grabbed and threatened her. After the alleged whistling incident, which violated the unspoken social code of the day in the Jim Crow South, Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan, both now deceased, abducted Till, torturing and killing him before throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milan were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury but later confessed to the crime in a Look magazine interview.

The killing in the early days of the Civil Rights Era served as a catalyst for action, helping the nascent civil rights movement gain steam. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral to show her son’s badly mutilated body to the world and draw attention to the barbaric nature of his racially motivated murder.

In June 2022, researchers discovered an unserved arrest warrant at the Leflore County, Mississippi, courthouse targeting Donham, who was identified in it as “Mrs. Roy Bryant.”

Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, filed the new legal complaint (pdf) on Feb. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. Leflore County Sheriff Ricky Banks is named as the sole defendant in the legal action.

Sterling wants the court to order the sheriff to serve the warrant on Donham and grant an order “enjoining Defendant from the racially selective enforcement of law.”

“But for Carolyn Bryant falsely claiming to her husband that Emmett Till assaulted her, Emmett would not have been murdered. It was Carolyn Bryant’s lie that sent Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan into a rage, which resulted in the mutilation of Emmett Till’s body into a [sic] unrecognizable condition,” according to the complaint.

“We are using the available means at our disposal to try to achieve justice on behalf of the Till family,” Sterling’s attorney Trent Walker of Jackson, Mississippi, told The Associated Press on Feb. 10. The Epoch Times reached out to Walker for comment but had not received a response as of press time.

Even if the warrant ends up being served on Donham, it is unclear what would happen next.

Donham, now 88, lives in Kentucky. She suffers from cancer, is legally blind, and is receiving end-of-life hospice care in a small apartment she shares with her son, according to The Daily Mail UK.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded an investigation into the Till killing in December 2021 without recommending any new charges be brought. A 2017 book quoted Donham saying she lied when she said that Till whistled at her, grabbed her, and made sexual advances toward her, but the department said Donham told the FBI that she never took back the accusations against Till.

In August 2022, a grand jury in Leflore County refused to indict Donham on kidnapping and manslaughter charges. In an unpublished memoir obtained by the AP the month before, Donham claimed that her husband and Milan brought Till to her late at night so she could identify him. She claimed she tried to help Till by saying it wasn’t him but that Till stepped forward and acknowledged he was the individual they were looking for. A grand jury in the state in 2007 also failed to issue new indictments in the case.

The DOJ had carried out a separate investigation in the Till case in 2004, which led to an exhumation of his body the following year. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act into law. The statute allows cold cases involving suspected violent crimes committed against black Americans before 1970 to be reopened.

The Epoch Times reached out to the office of Sheriff Banks for comment but had not received a reply as of press time.

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