In 1955, 14-year old Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi. His murders were never prosecuted, and now almost 65 years later, the US Department of Justice has decided to reopen the case, citing new information. His death, along with the powerful actions of his mourning mother, mobilized the civil rights movement. Although this murder may have sparked progress, Emmett and the Till family never received justice for his brutal death. The reopening of this sensitive and racially charged case has many wondering if after six decades justice will have the opportunity to prevail.
In August 1955, Emmett and a few other young boys went to the store to buy some gum in Mississippi. Here is where Emmett interacted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the cash register. No one knows exactly what went on in that exchange, but Carolyn told her husband that Emmett had made offensive gestures, grabbed and whistled at her. Carolyn’s husband, Roy Brant, and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, decided to find a way to punish Emmitt for these accused actions. They took Emmett from his Uncle’s house at gunpoint, and no one ever saw Emmett alive again. Days later, his lifeless and unrecognizable body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He had been beaten, shot in the face, and lynched. His wounds were so bad that this mother could only identify his body because of the ring he was wearing with this initials on it.
Emmett Till’s original murder trial and investigation began at the end of September in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. All testimonies were heard by an all-white jury who quickly acquitted the defendants after hardly an hour of deliberations. After the trial, both men confessed to Emmett’s murder.
No charges were ever brought against them.
More importantly, his murders were never prosecuted. This act of injustice fueled the civil rights movement by being a representation of the inequality in America’s justice system, which was especially apparent since both the murderers had publicly confessed to the crime. For the first time in history, it was easy for both black and white people to see the ways in which systemic discrimination and racism polluted the United States and oppressed people of color.
This is not the first time Emmett Till’s case has been encouraged to be reinvestigated. In 2004 the DOJ was requested to reopen the case. At the time, it was concluded that the department of justice did not have federal jurisdiction to reopen the case. In 2007, the case was referred to a grand jury in Mississippi who determined not to press any charges. Later that year, the Obama administration passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, also known as The Till Bill 2. This Bill made it so that the Department of Justice was accountable for investigating unsolved cases that were civil rights related or racially motivated, and had occurred before 1970. This bill also evoked a mandatory annual status report.
This status report is how news first broke about the new evidence prompting the DOJ to reopen the Till case. While no officials have stated what this new evidence is, many think it was a statement made from Carolyn Bryant on her deathbed. In Timothy Tyson’s book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” he recounts an interview he had with Carolyn. She stated that unlike her testimony in the trial, Emmett TIll had never actually grabbed her or made inappropriate gestures to her. She confessed, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
We won’t ever know if an honest testimony from Carolyn would have been able to penetrate a room full of prejudice jurors at the time. Today, this opportunity for justice stands as a beacon of hope that the harsh and corrupt prejudices from the Jim Crow South have faded. Or it may display the ways in which those prejudices still flourish in America.
The sad truth is that today, young African American boys are still being murdered by white males. And those white males are still not being prosecuted for their actions. In the same way that Emmett Till’s murder catalyzed a movement, so did the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. His killer was also never convicted.
It’s important to be hopeful that, at the very least, this investigation could provide a source of closure and justice for Emmett Till’s murder. The ability for this case to be looked at is a signal of progress. Still, how much safer is America today for the 14-year old black child in the south? Justice for Emmett Till is deserved, and justice for many other African Americans should be demanded. In the cultural climate of the needed Black Lives Matter movement, it’s the job of the oppressor, not the oppressed, to ensure that they do, in fact, matter.