Feds Reopen Case That Sparked Civil Rights Push

WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Department of Justice has reopened the 63-year-old case of Emmett Till, the black teenager whose brutal murder in 1955 helped trigger the civil rights movement.

FILE – This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. The federal government has reopened its investigation into the slaying of Till, the black teenager whose brutal killing in Mississippi helped inspire the civil rights movement more than 60 years ago. (AP Photo, File)

“The Till case has been re-opened by DOJ based upon the discovery of new information,” according to a report issued to Congress on March 26.

A Justice Department representative said Thursday the report was available to the public in March and declined to comment further. The reopening of the Till investigation was first reported by the Associated Press on Thursday morning.

“Because the matter is ongoing, the department can provide no further information about the current investigation,” the report continues.

Last year, news broke that Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman whose accusations of Till’s alleged flirtation contributed to his murder, had admitted she lied on the witness stand. Her interview with author Timothy B. Tyson, which appears in his 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” is the only one Donham ever gave.

In the summer of 1955, Emmett Till was a 14-year-old from Chicago visiting the Mississippi Delta to help out on his great uncle’s farm. He and some friends stopped into a small store owned by a white man named Roy Bryant to buy soda and bubble gum. Bryant’s wife Donham was behind the counter.

It’s not clear what exactly happened between Till and Donham; her story has shifted drastically over the years. She testified he grabbed her and used an obscenity, but earlier had said he merely insulted her. He may have whistled, though even that detail is hazy.

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Tyson’s book quotes her as saying.

Four nights later, in the middle of the night, Till was kidnapped, then tortured and killed. His body, beaten and decomposed almost beyond recognition, was found days later in a river. His mother Mamie Till Mobley famously decided on an open-casket funeral, saying, “I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till.”

Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were charged but then acquitted of Till’s murder by an all-white, all-male jury. They confessed to the crime a few months later in a magazine interview. Protected by the double-jeopardy clause, they could not be tried again.

Milam died in 1981 and Bryant in 1994, both of cancer. The case was reopened before, in 2004, but closed in 2007 when a grand jury declined to indict anyone else. Donham, now in her 80s, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, according to the Associated Press.

According to Tyson, Donham approached him for the bombshell interview because she was writing her memoirs. He said her manuscript is in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina library and will be available to the public in 2036.

The university confirmed that Donham’s unpublished memoirs were brought to the Southern Historical Collection by Tyson, who said they were not to be released to the public for 20 years or until Donham’s death.

The National Urban League, NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center, which partnered with the Justice Department and the FBI on their “Cold Case Initiative,” did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday.

Till’s cousin Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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