Department of Justice Reopens Investigation Into Slaying of Emmett Till

By Alfonso Serrano Jul 12, 2018

The federal government has reopened the investigation into the death of Emmett Till, the Black boy whose abduction and killing in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, embodied racial violence in the South and was a major catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement.

Citing new information in the case, the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a report to Congress in March outlining its reinvestigation of Till’s death, The Associated Press reported today (July 12). Federal authorities previously closed the case in 2007, saying the suspects in Till’s death were all deceased.

The report, which summarizes the federal government’s previous efforts to prosecute racial violence cases, states that because Till’s death is an active investigation, "the Department cannot provide additional information at this time."

Till was kidnapped and killed after being accused of flirting with a White woman. But the woman, Carolyn Donham, told Timothy B. Tyson, author of the 2017 book "The Blood of Emmett Till," that she lied when she testified in court that the 14-year-old grabbed her and made sexual advances. 

"Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him," Donham told Tyson.

Three days after the alleged incident, Till’s battered body was found in a nearby river. Donham’s then husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother were charged with murder, but acquitted by an all-White jury. Both men, now dead, confessed to the crime, but were never retried.

Mamie Till Mobley, Till’s mother, requested an open-casket funeral for her son so that the thousands of African-Americans in attendance could view Till’s battered body. 

"Let the world see what I have seen," she said at the time.

Till’s death and funeral, and subsequent photos of his disfigured body published by Jet Magazine, are credited with helping to launch the civil rights movement.

“In order to come to grips with this tragedy, she saw Emmett as being crucified on the cross of racial injustice,” Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told The Smithsonian. “And she felt that in order for his life not to be in vain, that she needed to use that moment to illuminate all of the dark corners of America and help push America toward what we now call the Civil Rights Movement.”

The DOJ reopened an investigation into Till’s death in 2004, but prosecutors concluded that they could not pursue charges in federal court due to the statute of limitations. Last year, Till’s relatives urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen the case following the publication of Tyson’s book.

After Tryson’s book was published, Reverend Jesse Jackson called on all people involved in Till’s death to face trial.

"In memory of #EmmettTill and thousands of other Black men, women and children lynched," Jackson said on Thursday, "we must finally pass anti-lynching law."

Last month, the Senate’s three Black lawmakers—Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.)—introduced a bill, Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, in an attempt to make lynching a federal crime.

"Lynching is a dark, despicable part of our history, and we must acknowledge that, lest we repeat it," Harris said in a statement. "From 1882 to 1986 there have been 200 attempts that have failed to get Congress to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, it’s time for that to change."