In pursuit of justice
Before the Department of Justice announced last week that it was finally opening an investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the disturbing case seemed to be a straightforward matter of two racist white killers and a failed judicial system.
In August 1955, Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was in Mississippi visiting relatives, allegedly whistled at the wife of a white man, Roy Bryant. Four days later, Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, yanked Emmett from his bed in the dead of night, threw him in the back of their truck, and beat him beyond recognition with a Colt .45 before tying a metal fan to his neck, shooting him, and throwing his body in a river.
The case brought race relations, already simmering after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in May of the previous year, to a boil. "The initial reaction was that even in Mississippi you don't get to do this--this isn't 1935, you can't just go around killing black kids because they whistle at women," says historian Michael Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality . Till's mother demanded an open casket at his funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son. Fifty thousand people came to view his battered body.
Soda break. When an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam (after deliberating for one hour and seven minutes--including a break for soda), protesters took to the streets in many cities. A few months later, the two men, protected by the double-jeopardy doctrine that prevents a person from being tried twice for the same crime, gloated about getting away with the murder in an interview with Look magazine. Public anger turned to rage. "It was one of the biggest civil rights episodes in the 1950s," says Klarman. One hundred days after Till was murdered, the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott began.
Yet for almost 50 years, the Justice Department steered clear of Till's case. Because Bryant and Milam didn't cross state lines, there was technically no federal jurisdiction, and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI was rarely proactive in civil rights cases. Besides, Milam and Bryant had admitted killing Till. Case closed.
So why have the feds suddenly expressed renewed interest in Emmett Till? Years of pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, members of Congress, and Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who died last year, most likely played a role. But the Justice Department seems to be following the lead of two contemporary documentaries (one of which sparked a massive letter-writing campaign) that conclude Bryant and Milam, who both died over a decade ago, did not act alone.
Stanley Nelson, whose film The Murder of Emmett Till came out last year, says one witness, never sought out by prosecutors, told him he'd seen a black employee of Milam's laughing while cleaning Till's blood from the back of Milam's truck. Another said there were more people in the truck that took Till to his death than just Milam and Bryant. Keith Beauchamp, in his still unreleased documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till , goes even further. After conducting nine years of interviews, he says he has learned the names of five people still living who he believes were tied to Till's death.
It's possible, too, that successful prosecutions of other civil-rights-era crimes helped loosen the seal on the Till file. The murderer of Medgar Evers was finally convicted in 1994 after two mistrials in the 1960s; two Klansmen involved in the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing were sent to prison in 2001 and 2002. While the statute of limitations on federal action in the Till matter has expired, prosecutions by Mississippi officials are possible. Beauchamp has already been interviewed by the U.S. attorney and the local district attorney in Mississippi. True, some analysts are not confident that establishing who saw what and where--almost 50 years ago--will be possible. Whatever the conclusion, says Nelson, revisiting the case sends a powerful message to civil-rights-era criminals: "If you murdered somebody and you're still alive, we're going to come get you."
This story appears in the May 24, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.