Emmett Till’s photo is seen on his grave marker in Alsip, Ill. (Robert A. Davis/Chicago Sun-Times/AP)
The federal government is once again investigating the brutal slaying of Emmett Till, a black teenager whose 1955 lynching put a spotlight on racial violence and galvanized the U.S. civil rights movement.
The Justice Department told Congress in a report submitted in March that it has reopened the investigation into Till’s death “after receiving new information.” The report, with a title bearing the name of laws inspired by Till’s death, did not specify what new information investigators have and did not share other details, citing the pending investigation.
The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday, after the Associated Press first reported the cold case investigation had been reopened.
Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in rural Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances on a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. On Aug. 28, 1955, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till and killed him. His mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
Mississippi Gov. Hugh White called for the prosecution of Bryant and Milam, who were charged, but they were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury after just over an hour of deliberation.
The two men later told a journalist that they killed Till. They died without being convicted.
In 2004, the Justice Department was asked to consider prosecuting other subjects who may have been involved in Till’s slaying, but the agency decided it had no jurisdiction because the statute of limitations had already expired on potential federal crimes, according to the agency’s report.
In 2007, the case was referred to the state prosecutor for Mississippi’s 4th Judicial District, but a grand jury declined to issue new charges.
The reopening of the investigation marks the first major development in the case since it was declared closed in December 2007.
Ten years ago, Carolyn Bryant (now Carolyn Donham) broke her decades-long silence in an interview with historian Timothy B. Tyson. Tyson told the AP last year that Donham had told him in 2008 that Till never made physical and verbal advances toward her.
“She told me that ‘nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,’ ” Tyson told the AP.
Tyson wrote about the interview in his book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which was published last year.
Citing the book, Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin, wrote an op-ed for USA Today last week, calling for the reopening of the investigation.
Our patience has worn thin. Time is up! We have spent many sleepless nights thinking of ways to move justice forward for Emmett. With thousands of questions remaining unanswered and with the blessings of the next of kin in our family, I’d like to share just a few of our questions and concerns with you and urge for your immediate support:
Will there ever be justice for Emmett?
Some have told us to move on, it’s too late! Is it really too late for us to pursue justice?
Is Donham above the law? Does she never have to answer for being an accomplice in Emmett’s kidnapping and murder? Or be held accountable today for the appropriate charges?
Watts has not responded to a request for comment from The Washington Post, but she told the AP she did not know the investigation had been reopened until a reporter contacted her this week. Watts, who co-founded the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, called the news “wonderful” but did not comment further.
“None of us wants to do anything that jeopardizes any investigation or impedes, but we are also very interested in justice being done,” she told the AP.
Donham, who is now in her 80s, lives in Raleigh, N.C. The Post was unable to reach her Thursday, but the AP reported that a man who answered the door at her home said, “We don’t want to talk to you.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson went on Twitter on Thursday morning, saying the United States must pass an anti-lynching law in memory of Till and other black men, women and children who had been lynched.
As The Post’s Erin B. Logan reported, lawmakers have tried numerous times to address lynching on a federal level. None of their efforts have been successful, according to anti-lynching legislation introduced this year by three black senators.
If the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 passes, lynching would finally become a federal crime, Logan reported.
Till was severely beaten before he was shot in the head. A metal fan used to gin cotton was attached to his neck with barbed wire. His decomposed, mutilated body was pulled from the river days later, weighed down by the fan.
Photographs of Till’s corpse, shown to the world in an open casket at the insistence of his mother, became some of the most consequential images of racial violence against African Americans. Till’s body was taken to Chicago, where thousands waited in line to see him.
Erin B. Logan contributed to this report.