Emmett Till’s relatives push for renewed probe into 1955 lynching

A Black teenager from Chicago, Till’s abduction, torture and murder decades ago galvanised the US civil rights movement.

Relatives of Emmett Till, a Black teenager whose 1955 lynching propelled the United States civil rights movement, have joined supporters in asking authorities to reverse their decision to close an investigation into the killing.

Deborah Watts, a cousin of Till who heads the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, on Friday urged authorities to bring to justice a woman who was at the centre of the case from the very beginning.

US authorities have known for decades that Carolyn Bryant Donham, now in her 80s and living in North Carolina, played a key role in Till’s slaying, and they need to act immediately, Watts said.

“Time is not on our side,” Watts, who lives in Minnesota, said during a news conference at the state Capitol.

Relatives said they would present Mississippi authorities with a petition signed by about 250,000 people seeking a renewed probe of the killing, which came to demonstrate the depth of racial hatred in the South to the world. Other petition drives continue.

Michelle Williams, chief of staff for Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, cast doubt on the possibility of a renewed investigation. In a statement, she said the Justice Department had worked with a local district attorney’s office in a re-examination that ended in December.

“This is a tragic and horrible crime, but the FBI, which has far greater resources than our office, has investigated this matter twice and determined that there is nothing more to prosecute,” Williams said.

The Justice Department said in December that it was ending its renewed investigation into the killing of Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago who was abducted, tortured, and killed after witnesses said he whistled at Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant, at a family store where she worked in rural Mississippi.

Federal officials had reopened the investigation after a 2017 book quoted Donham as saying she lied when she claimed Till accosted her.

Relatives have publicly denied that Donham recanted her allegations, and Donham told the FBI she had never changed her story, the Justice Department said.

The Justice Department said that historian Timothy B Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till, was unable to produce recordings or transcripts to substantiate his account of Donham allegedly admitting to lying about her encounter with the teen.

Congressman Bobby Rush championed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, legislation that for the first time would make lynching a federal hate crime in the US [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

The FBI investigation included a talk with one of Till’s cousins, the Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr, who previously told the Associated Press in an interview that he heard Till whistle at the woman in a store in Money, but the Black teenager did nothing to warrant being killed.

Donham’s then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother JW Milam were tried on murder charges about a month after Till was killed, but an all-white Mississippi jury acquitted them. Months later, they confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine.

The Justice Department found that Bryant and Milam were not the only people involved, however, and estimates on the number of people who might have played a role in Till’s killing range from a half-dozen to more than 14. Bryant died in 1994 and Milam passed away in 1980.

Earlier this week, Congress gave final approval to legislation that for the first time would make lynching a federal hate crime in the US, sending the bill to President Joe Biden.

Years in the making, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act is among some 200 bills that have been introduced over the past century that have tried to ban lynching in the US.

“Lynching is a longstanding and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy,” said Representative Bobby Rush, a Democrat who championed the bill.

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