The Department of Justice has reopened its investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose vicious lynching and the subsequent acquittal of his killers became a flashpoint for the civil-rights movement.
Till’s story is a stain on American history. The Chicago teenager was visiting relatives in Mississippi when 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, accused him of making a pass at her in the small-town grocery store she and her husband owned. Her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, later snatched Till from his bed in the middle of the night. They beat him, tortured him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River with the fan of a cotton gin tied to his neck with barbed wire.
He had been mutilated, and his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral with his unrecognizable face on full display was instrumental in drawing attention to his case and has been credited with “reigniting a widespread passion for the Civil Rights Movement.” The reopening of her son’s murder case comes 15 years too late for Mamie Till — who became active in the civil-rights movement following his death — she died in 2003.
Weeks after murdering Till, Roy Bryant and Milam were acquitted after a jury deliberation that lasted just one hour. The two men later admitted in a magazine interview to killing Till, but were never retried.
The DOJ’s move to reopen the case came after “receiving new information,” it said in a report to Congress. It didn’t elaborate on the nature of the information, but the Washington Post reports that the key detail was contained in historian Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till. In an interview published in the book, Bryant admitted she lied about Till coming on to her.
“That part’s not true,” she said. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
In her testimony at the murder trial, Bryant said that a “nigger man” grabbed her by the hand in her store and said to her, “How about a date, baby?” She resisted and pulled away, but Till approached her and got her by the waist, she said. “What’s the matter, baby? Can’t you take it?” she recalled his saying. Then, Bryant said, he used obscenities that she would not repeat in the courtroom.
Bryant, whose name is now Carolyn Donham, is in her 80s and lives in North Carolina. When the Associated Press went to her door to talk about the reopening of the case, a man answered and said, “We don’t want to talk to you.”
It’s unclear what, if any, new charges the federal government will be able to bring in Till’s murder. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam are both dead, and while Donham appears to have admitted to perjury, the statute of limitations on that crime has long passed.