Some 63 years after Emmett Till’s brutal murder inspired the Civil Rights Movement, the U.S. Department of Justice has re-opened its investigation with little fanfare.
The department told Congress in a March report that it had received “new information” about the 1955 case, but Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, told The Associated Press this week that she’d been unaware of the development.
“I thought it was supposed to be under the radar,” said University of Kansas professor Dave Tell, author of the upcoming book “Remembering Emmett Till.” “I don’t know what changed, but my hunch is, the Department of Justice just leaked it.”
The department has not commented publicly on the reopening. The Associated Press, quoting a federal official familiar with the matter, broke the news.
Till was 14 when his body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River in Money, Miss., where he’d been visiting family. He’d been beaten and tortured to death, his bullet-ridden body strapped by barbed wire to a 75-pound cotton gin fan. His body was so mutilated that it was virtually unrecognizable but his mother, the late Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral. Thousands attended and Jet Magazine covered the Chicago service, showing graphic images of Till’s battered face. The coverage bore witness to the depth of racial hatred in the deep South and built momentum for subsequent civil rights campaigns.
Rosa Parks said she was inspired by the Till murder when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were charged with Till’s murder but were acquitted. They later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview but weren’t retried. Both are now dead.
Although there is little official word on the new investigation, Tell said the likely focus is Carolyn Bryant Donham, 83, who was married to Bryant at the time of Till’s death. She testified during Bryant and Milam’s 1955 trial that Till, whom she described using a racist term, took her by the arm while she was in her family’s store.
“He said, ‘How about a date, baby?’” she testified. Donham testified that she pulled away, and that moments later Till grasped her around the waist with both hands and pulled her toward him.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?’” she testified. Donham said Till told her “you don’t need to be afraid of me.” She claimed that he used an obscenity and mentioned something he had done “with white women before.”
The 2016 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” includes a 2008 quote from Donham saying that she wasn’t truthful when she testified.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” the book quotes her as saying.
“The target of the inquiry is certainly Carolyn Donham,” said Tell, whose book is due out in 2019. “So, the question becomes — should we pursue justice 63 years later to an 83-year-old woman?”
Absolutely, says former Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing editor Hank Klibanoff, who runs the Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, where he is also a professor.
“If you have Carolyn Bryant (Donham) saying all the things that set this in motion are based on a lie that (she) told, that is pretty fascinating and probably self-incriminating,” said Klibanoff, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Race Beat”and host of “Buried Truths,” a podcast about cold civil rights cases. “There is no question in my mind, that regardless of her age, she should be prosecuted should there be a full process of adjudicating her involvement on this.”
Donham now lives in Raleigh, N.C. A man who came to the door declined to comment when an Associated Press reporter knocked.
“We don’t want to talk to you,” the man said before going back inside.
But Tell is hopeful that someone will talk and that re-opening the case will continue to spark conversations and debates about Till, civil rights, racial reconciliation and delayed justice.
“The 1955 murder of Emmett Till continues to haunt American culture precisely because the case has never been settled,” Tell said. “Myths continue to circulate about what happened the night Till was killed, and justice is yet to be served. Until we tell the truth about that awful night, and until justice is served, Till’s murder will continue to haunt us.”
Asked if an 83-year-old woman should be investigated and punished if found guilty all these decades later, Tell was emphatic: “Absolutely.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.