Terri Watts, director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation and cousin of Emmett Till, speaks inside the Mississippi State Capitol in March 2022. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

Family members of Emmett Till are calling on Mississippi officials to arrest the woman they say is the last living accomplice in Till’s lynching.

The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, founded by Till’s family members, announced Friday at a press conference at the Mississippi State Capitol that they were delivering a petition with over 300,000 signatures to Mississippi officials, calling for Carolyn Bryant Donham to be charged.

Donham was the wife of Roy Bryant, one of Till’s two murderers. She and her husband owned a store together in Money, Miss. that Till and his cousins visited in August 1955, where she later testified that he allegedly grabbed her arm, put his hands on her waist, and made sexually suggestive comments.

In 2018, the investigation into Till’s death was reopened after a book by Timothy Tyson published that included a confession from Donham that her allegations at the time were false. In the book, Donham recanted that Till made advances on her, telling the author “that part is not true.” Donham later disputed this claim that she recanted her story, according to the Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting. In December 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice closed the case without filing any additional charges because authorities found “insufficient evidence to prove that she ever told the professor that any part of her testimony was untrue.”

Family members said they met with the Department of Justice in Oxford earlier this week, but left disappointed as they feel other information still needs to be investigated. 

“We want justice,” said Jaribu Hill, a civil rights attorney representing the family.  “We want the original warrant that should have been served on her in 1955. We want that warrant to surface, and we want it served…We want the evidence that shows her culpability brought before a grand jury, and we want the state of Mississippi to take accountability, to be responsible, for all of the Emmett Tills.” 

Posters next to the podium showed paintings of Till with career goals he was not able to fulfill, including peacekeeping, cooking, comedy, and playing baseball. 

“It is frustrating that I have to keep screaming and hollering about the importance of getting closure, not only for the family of Emmett Till but for the whole nation,” said Keith Beauchamp, whose 2005 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till helped reopen the case. 

Shelton Chappell, whose mother was shot during the 1964 Jacksonville race riots, played the freedom song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” on his saxophone while other speakers sang along.

Deborah Watts, co-founder of the foundation, said that it was “invigorating” to see so many petition signatures, which reminds her that “we are not walking this road alone.” 

“We made a promise to Mamie (Till) that we would persist, and that’s why we’re here today,” Watts said. 

A “Justice for Emmett Till” rally will be held in Smith Park in Jackson on Saturday, March 12 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.