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Justice Department Reopens Emmett Till Murder Investigation

A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Ill. No one was convicted in his 1955 lynching.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A plaque marks the gravesite of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Aslip, Ill. No one was convicted in his 1955 lynching.

Nearly 63 years after the brutal, racist killing of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi, the Justice Department has reopened the investigation into the killing.

The department says it has received "new information" in the case but cannot provide any details about the reactivated investigation.

The reopening was announced in an annual report to Congress in March and widely reported on Thursday.

Last year, a new book on the killing, The Blood of Emmett Till, combined archival research with new interviews; members of Till's family had hoped the book would lead to the case being reopened.

Till's death in August 1955 was followed by an open-casket funeral, which famously laid bare the savagery of his killers.

Two white men were originally prosecuted on murder charges, but in a closely watched case, an all-white jury found them not guilty. The men later confessed to a journalist that they did, in fact, kill Till, because he refused to stay in his "place" as a black man in the South. They did not express regret.

The events helped spur the burgeoning civil rights movement in the late '50s. And the lack of any consequence for Till's killers has troubled and frustrated many people, in Mississippi and beyond.

Filmmakers who have looked into Till's death say they have heard accounts of multiple other accomplices.

However, aside from the two acquitted men, no one else was charged in the death. A review in 2004 determined that the statute of limitations had run out on any federal crime that could be prosecuted. In 2007, a state grand jury also declined to indict any other suspects.

But earlier this year, the Department of Justice informed Congress it has reopened the case In re Emmett Till "based on the discovery of new information."

The department also provided updates on a number of similar cold cases involving "crimes of racial violence," including cases in which investigators sent state authorities information on still-living suspects who might be prosecuted.

"The Department is committed to achieving justice in civil rights-era cold cases," the report to Congress says.

Till was buying candy in August 1955 when he whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, according to a cousin who witnessed the encounter. (Bryant also claimed he grabbed her and made obscene comments, but author Timothy Tyson says she has since retracted that claim, saying, "That part's not true.")

Several days later, Till was kidnapped, beaten and shot. Barbed wire was wrapped around his neck and tied to a heavy cotton gin fan, and his body was thrown in the Tallahatchie River.

Till's uncle, Mose Wright, identified the killers in court as Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. "It was a dramatic moment," NPR's Debbie Elliott wrote in 2015. "Never in anyone's memory had a black man in Mississippi confronted whites in court."

The jury acquitted the two men anyway. Bryant and Milam later admitted to the crime in an interview with Look magazine, without identifying any accomplices who might face further charges.

They described Till as a confident young man, one who told them, even as they beat him, "I'm as good as you are." They said they decided to "make an example" of him.

Milam told the reporter:

"As long as I live and can do anything about it, n*****s are gonna stay in their place. N*****s ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n***** gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."

As Debbie Elliott reported in 2015, some citizens of Sumner, Miss., where the trial took place, have sought reconciliation in the years since the two men's acquittal.

There's a marker along the river where Till's body was found.

"But confronting a fraught history has been an ongoing struggle in Mississippi," Elliott reported.

"Today, that marker is riddled with bullet holes."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
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