In November 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it had concluded its 18-month investigation into the reopened case of the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The FBI’s report, not yet public, has been forwarded to the Mississippi District Attorney’s Office for the Fourth District for review. It is not yet known whether the DA’s office will take further action. This internationally known case involved a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was abducted from his bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night. Three days later, a boy on a fishing trip in the Tallahatchie River found Till’s corpse—battered, mutilated, shot, and weighed down with a 75-pound cotton gin fan. Based on eyewitness testimony about Till’s abduction and an identification of his body by his uncle and mother, Tallahatchie County tried two local white men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, for the murder. After five days of trial, a jury of 12 white men deliberated for 67 minutes and voted to acquit. Shortly thereafter, the freed Bryant and Milam sold their “confession” to the murder—in the form of a detailed, gloating testimonial—to Look magazine for $4,000.
The killers’ admission, published only five months after the slaying, was generally consistent with the theory presented at trial: that they had murdered Emmett Till for flirting with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, as she worked at the Bryants’ convenience store in Money, Miss. Roy Bryant had been out of town at the time, but when he returned and heard of the story, he enlisted his half-brother, Milam, to exact revenge. In their admission, Bryant and Milam said that their initial intention in kidnapping Till was to “just whip him…and scare some sense into him.” However, Till’s apparent fearlessness, even after severe beatings, irked the men into going further. Milam explained:
“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I’m no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
According to Milam and Bryant, they then drove Till to a steep bank of the Tallahatchie River, ordered him to strip, shot him in the head, barb-wired the gin fan to his neck, and rolled him into 20 feet of water.
Given the clear-cut finality of the acquittal and post-acquittal admission, why would federal and state officials decide to reopen the case nearly 50 years later? Bryant and Milam are long gone: Milam died in 1981, and Bryant in 1994. Their culpability is not in question. What motivated the FBI’s and prosecutors’ decisions that something new might or should be accomplished? The answers to these questions are both simple and complex. On a conventional, legalistic level, the prosecutorial decision to reopen is based on newly discovered evidence of additional eyewitnesses and living potential defendants. Two filmmakers, Stanley Nelson (“The Murder of Emmett Till,” produced in 2003) and Keith Beauchamp (“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” produced in 2004), separately identified new eyewitnesses while making their respective documentaries about the Till case. Beauchamp’s investigative efforts over a nine-year period proved particularly salient in locating individuals whose recollections suggest the involvement of several additional observers or participants; he noted that, at a certain point, “I realized that I wasn’t doing interviews—I was taking depositions.” Beauchamp’s evidence proved to be the ultimate catalyst for the decision to reopen.
A more complex set of reasons for the reopening stems from the emblematic significance of the case itself. In announcing the involvement of federal prosecutors, Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta noted, “The Emmett Till case stands at the heart of the American civil rights movement. This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanize support for the modern American civil rights movement. We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years, some additional measure of justice remains possible.” While some have questioned the timing and motivations of the Justice Department’s proclamation, there is no disagreement with its assessment of the historic consequence of the death of Emmett Till. Till’s murder is one of the most infamous acts of racial violence in the history of the United States; it profoundly changed the scope of racial discourse in ways that still resonate throughout American culture. His death and the ensuing trial attracted worldwide attention and outrage. His funeral drew mourners in numbers in the tens of thousands, and his mother’s memorable insistence on an open-casket viewing resulted in widespread circulation of an unforgettable Jet magazine photo of his pulverized face. A generation has grown up with the tragic image of Emmett Till’s defaced corpse etched in its memory. That image and its racial meaning have engendered countless works in politics, history, journalism, and the arts, from the 1950s to the present.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, aided by scores of civil rights leaders, politicians, and artists, devoted the rest of her life to preserving her child’s legacy through public education and lobbying to reopen the case. Till-Mobley died in 2003. By the time her efforts finally proved fruitful in 2004, the case of Emmett Till had become a symbol not only of this nation’s history of brutality against African-Americans, but also of the inadequacies of the American legal system in redressing past racial injustices.
In my recent work on the significance of this and other revived murder investigations from the civil rights era, I explore a number of questions about the meaning and usefulness of such reopenings. What “measure of justice” is possible after so many years? What legal actions could compensate for such grievous wrongs? Could any outcomes be meaningful in light of the passage of time? Are present-day convictions for long-ago racial crimes anachronistic or compellingly relevant in healing racial divides and addressing current injustices?
There is a deep ambivalence about the revival of long-dormant racial justice claims. On the one hand, these reopenings can be seen as long-delayed opportunities for truth, justice, and closure. But legal aspirations to repair the past must always be tempered by the knowledge that some injuries are irreparable. Moreover, it would be unfortunate if the cathartic effects of convicting elderly white supremacists obscured our ability to see that much hard work lies ahead in the struggle for racial justice.
In this excerpt from my work, I discuss the recently reopened Till case and its significance in American legal history.