DOJ to reopen Emmett Till investigation

By Dorothy Inman-Johnson

Special to the Outlook

   A new book, The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy Tyson, has ignited interest in reopening the investigation into the brutal murder of a 14-year-old Chicago teenager while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. The kidnapping and murder horrified Americans and the world and is believed to have led to the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.

Deborah Watts, Emmett Till’s cousin and co-founder/ director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was just a toddler when he was murdered, but still bears the scars from her family’s anger and pain from his loss, with no justice for his death. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that her son’s coffin be open at the funeral so the world could see what his murderers did to her child. I was 8 years old when I saw the photo published in Jet Magazine of Till’s open coffin at his funeral. His head and face were so badly beaten and mutilated that he bore no resemblance to a human being. Even as a child, it filled me with anger, terror, outrage, and deep pain. The sight of what they did to that young boy was, also, the source of many nightmares. You just could not erase the image from your memory.

Sixty years later, Tyson reveals that through an interview with Carolyn Bryant for his 2017 book,  she admits the accusation she made that led her husband and his half-brother to kidnap and murder Till was a lie. In 1955, Carolyn, a White woman, claimed Emmett came into her store, whistled at her, grabbed her waist, and made advances toward her. A friend who accompanied Emmett to the store said Till was only in the store a few minutes, made his purchase, and came out. He saw no inappropriate interaction between the teenager and the storekeeper.

However, because of Carolyn’s claim, Roy Bryant and John Milam kidnapped Emmett from his relatives’ home in the middle of the night, beat, tortured, murdered him, and discarded his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s family members identified Bryant, Milam, and their Black handyman who tried to hide his face as the men who took Till from the house, while Carolyn waited in the truck and identified Till as “the nigger” who made advances to her.  At the trial for Bryant and Milam, she repeated the lie in court. Both men were acquitted by an all-White jury since during the 1950s and 1960s Black residents were not allowed to vote or serve on juries.

After the acquittals, both men bragged about committing the murder, but double jeopardy prevented them from being retried for the crime. Though Roy Bryant and John Milam are both deceased, Deborah Watts feels any living accomplices to the crime must be brought to justice; and that her family cannot have closure until all involved in Emmett’s murder are held accountable for their actions. She has shared her family’s 63 years of pain and anguish on National Public Radio, TV, in newspaper and magazine articles, and in numerous books written about the Emmett Till story and senseless murder, as she continues her campaign to finally get justice for her cousin.

And though almost everyone agrees the investigation into Till’s death should be reopened, many civil rights activists don’t trust or have faith in the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to do the job. After all, Sessions has refused repeatedly to file charges against police officers for violation of victims’ civil rights in numerous recent cases where videotape documents police shooting and killing unarmed Black men and boys. In addition, he has dismantled all of President Obama’s criminal justice reforms that hold police departments accountable for these miscarriages of justice and require local governments to take action to prevent future cases.

Regardless, closure for this long-suffering family and justice for Emmett is required in order to close this horrible chapter in our nation’s history. Deborah Watts’ only regret is that her Aunt Mamie, Emmett’s mother,  did not live to see the investigation reopened and the many articles and books that now vindicate her child.

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