The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of defiance as well as mourning, helping to ignite the modern civil rights movement. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told the funeral director.
“I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till,” she said in a PBS documentary interview. Those words ring loudly amid news Thursday that the U.S. Department of Justice has reopened an investigation of the 1955 slaying.
Many of the horrific details of Till’s death, including the racist intent and identities of the killers, are known. The name Emmett Till remains a powerful byword of the African-American struggle for equality.
What’s missing is closure. And justice.
Emmett Till was 14 years old in the summer of 1955, living with his mother in a two-flat at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave., when he was put on a train to visit relatives near Money, Miss. The story told by a 21-year-old white woman was that Emmett propositioned and whistled at her at a corner store. Days later, Emmett was abducted. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down by a cast iron cotton gin pulley. He’d been beaten savagely and shot in the head.
The case was a sensation. Photos in Jet magazine of Emmett’s mutilated body shocked America. Two white Mississippi men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were acquitted of the murder — by an all-white, small-town Mississippi jury that deliberated for a little over an hour, including a Coke break. Rosa Parks said she had Emmett Till in mind in December 1955 when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
A month later, Bryant, who was Donham’s husband, and Milam admitted their guilt to Look magazine.
The pair are dead, as is Emmett Till’s mother, but the woman from the corner store, Carolyn Donham, is alive. About a decade ago, the Justice Department and Mississippi prosecutors reinvestigated the murder; they declined to move forward. A year later, though, Donham talked to writer Timothy B. Tyson and said she hadn’t been truthful in her trial testimony. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she’s quoted as saying in Tyson’s recently published book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”
Donham’s interview could be the reason for a renewed federal investigation, according to The Associated Press. She wasn’t talking as of Thursday afternoon. The Justice Department told Congress in a report in March that it is again looking into the killing because of “new information.” It’s interesting to note that the annual report to Congress on unsolved civil rights crimes is mandated by legislation named in recognition of Emmett Till.