Advertisement
News by VICE

The DOJ has reopened the 1955 Emmett Till murder case that sparked the civil rights movement

The DOJ quietly reopened the investigation after receiving new information

by Tess Owen
Jul 12 2018, 1:00pm

The United States Justice Department has quietly reopened its investigation into the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black teenager whose brutal murder in 1955 Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement.

The DOJ started reinvestigating Till’s murder in March upon receiving “new information.”

“The Department has reopened In re: Emmett Till, a case which had been listed as closed on prior Reports, after receiving new information,” the DOJ wrote in its March 26 report to Congress. “Because it is an active investigation, the Department cannot provide any additional information at this time.”

In an email to VICE News, the Justice Department declined to comment further.

It isn’t clear what that new information is. But, as the Associated Press notes, the case was reopened following the 2017 publication of “The Blood of Emmett Till,” a book by research scholar Timothy B. Tyson. For his book, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Donham (formerly Carolyn Bryant), a white woman who was 21 at the time of Till’s death. Donham admitted in the interview that she hadn’t been truthful when she testified that Till whistled at, grabbed and sexually harassed her at a local grocery store, one week before he was found dead in Money, Mississippi.

The FBI report on the case, published in 2006 before it was closed, described how Till, who had traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi, encountered Donham and whistled at her as she exited a family-run grocery store. Days later, on Aug. 28, 1955, according to that report, Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam showed up at a residence belonging to Till’s family and “abducted” him. Milam and Bryant were arrested by the Leflore County Sheriff’s office and charged with kidnapping.

Testimony ruled inadmissible at the time suggested that a woman was in the car with them.

On Aug. 31, 1955, Till’s body was discovered floating in the Tallahatchie River, after being thrown off the Black Bayou Bridge in Glendora, Mississippi, about 20 miles north of Money. A 75-pound cotton gin fan was tied with barbed wire to his neck; his left eye and many of his teeth were missing.

Milam and Bryant were arrested and charged with Till’s murder. Both were acquitted of all charges shortly thereafter. Both men confessed to kidnapping and murdering Till in an interview with Look Magazine, published January 1956. According to the FBI report, by 2006, all the individuals involved in Till’s case – judge, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court reporters, as well as Milam and Bryant – were dead.

In 2004, the case was briefly reopened at the request of the district attorney in Greenwood, Mississippi, to determine if there had been other suspects in Till’s murder. Three years later, the Justice Department declared his case closed, believing that all possible suspects in his murder were dead.

The news that Till’s case has been reopened coincides with recently elected Alabama Sen. Doug Jones’ introduction of a bill to form a panel to review, declassify, and release government documents related to old unsolved criminal civil rights cases.

Cover image: In this Oct. 24, 1955 file photo, officers stand by as black religious leaders from Chicago demonstrate outside the White House in Washington against the murder of 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Emmett Louis Till. (AP Photo/File)