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New details in book about Emmett Till’s death prompted officials to reopen investigation

The Justice Department has reopened an investigation into the 1955 killing of black teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi. (Video: Reuters)

New information published in a 2017 book prompted federal investigators to reopen their probe into the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, according to two people familiar with the case.

Till, a 14-year-old visiting from Chicago, was murdered after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, during an interaction at Bryant’s grocery store in Money, Miss. The teen was kidnapped Aug. 28, 1955, and was tortured and shot. His mangled body was found days later in the Tallahatchie River.

The book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by historian Timothy Tyson, includes the first-known interview with Bryant, during which she conceded that Till had not come on to her sexually — a disclosure that directly contradicted her testimony six decades earlier, when she told a jury that Till grabbed her by the waist and uttered obscenities.

“That part’s not true,” Bryant told Tyson, according to the book. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

The release of Tyson’s book in January 2017 reignited interest in the federal investigation into the case, which put a spotlight on racial violence and galvanized the civil rights movement. The book also spurred speculation about whether Bryant — now known as Carolyn Donham — could face charges.

The Washington Post was unable to reach Donham, who is now in her 80s and lives in Raleigh, N.C. The Associated Press reported that a man who answered the door at her home told a reporter: “We don’t want to talk to you.”

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Tyson, who said he talked to Donham during two interviews in 2008 and finished writing the book eight years later, said someone from the FBI contacted him a few months after his book was published. He gave the FBI agent “everything he wanted to see,” Tyson said, and his research materials were subpoenaed. He added, however, that he does not believe the investigation would lead to any criminal charges.

“Because the only thing that she disclosed to me is perjury, that she testified falsely in court,” said Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University. “The statute of limitations on that ran out in 1958.”

Tyson received a copy of Donham’s unpublished memoir, “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” which he gave to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the restriction that it not be released until 2036 or until Donham’s death.

He said he does not know why Donham decided to talk to him.

“I’ve wondered that myself, but I can’t read her mind,” Tyson said.

Donham’s former husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were prosecuted for Till’s death. An all-white jury acquitted them after just over an hour of deliberation — but the two later told a journalist that they had killed Till. They died without being convicted.

Federal and state officials have reinvestigated the case in recent decades, but none of the probes have resulted in new charges. The case was closed in 2007.

In March, a year after Tyson’s book was published, the Justice Department told Congress in a report that the investigation into Till’s death has been reopened “after receiving new information.” The report, with a title bearing the name of laws inspired by Till’s death, did not specify what new information investigators have and did not share other details.

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The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday, after the AP first reported that the investigation has been reopened.

Airicka Gordon-Taylor, Till’s cousin and executive director of the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation (named after the teen’s mother), declined to comment on how the disclosures in Tyson’s book may affect the investigation but said the family has been kept in the loop by investigators.

“This is no surprise to members of the family,” Gordon-Taylor said. “The family is aware of the ongoing investigation.”

During a 2017 interview with The Post, a different Till cousin who was at the grocery store during the 1955 interaction with Carolyn Bryant said the new disclosures in Tyson’s book were what he had “been praying for.”

“It’s a prayer come true for her to recant,” the cousin, Wheeler Parker, said of Donham’s admission to Tyson. “That lie probably cost Emmett his life.”

Deborah Watts, also a Till cousin, said she did not know that Congress had received a report saying the investigation had been reopened until an AP reporter contacted her this week.

“We were always hoping for a renewal of the investigation,” she said, declining to comment about the case. “I definitely don’t want to do anything that would impede their progress or their process. We just hope that justice will prevail.”

In 2004, the Justice Department was asked to consider prosecuting other subjects who may have been involved in Till’s slaying. The FBI reopened the investigation, and Till’s body was exhumed in 2005. But officials later decided it had no jurisdiction because the statute of limitations had expired on potential federal crimes.

In 2007, the case was referred to the state prosecutor for Mississippi’s 4th Judicial District, but a grand jury declined to issue new charges.

The reopening of the investigation marks the first official development in the case since it was closed in December 2007.

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Rep. Bobby L. Rush, a Democratic congressman who represents the Illinois district where Till was buried and where his mother lived, urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen the case last year, after the book was published.

“I am glad to see the federal government following through on this request. This case is not only critically important for the role it played in sparking the Civil Rights movement, but so that Emmett and his family receive the justice that is owed to them. It is vital that everyone — both victims and perpetrators — knows that heinous crimes of this nature will never go unpunished,” Rush said in a statement Thursday.

But Tyson, the author, saw the reopening of the investigation not as an effort to right a wrong but a “cost-free political show” for an administration deeply criticized for its racial politics.

“I think this is utterly hypocritical . . . to make a public gesture as though Jeff Beauregard Sessions and Donald Trump cared about civil rights,” Tyson said, citing the separation of migrant families and legal stances that Sessions’s Justice Department has taken in cases involving voting rights. “And I find it deeply ironic and appalling, really, that enemies of civil rights would try to use this dead child’s memory as a shield for their vicious, white nationalist politics.”

Hundreds of steel columns dangling from beams symbolize lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Video: Jonathan Capehart / The Washington Post)

The Rev. Jesse Jackson went on Twitter on Thursday morning to say that the United States must pass an anti-lynching law in memory of Till and other black men, women and children who had been lynched.

As The Post’s Erin B. Logan reported, lawmakers have tried numerous times to address lynching on a federal level. None of their efforts have been successful, according to anti-lynching legislation introduced this year by three black senators.

If the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 passes, lynching would finally become a federal crime, Logan reported.

Till was severely beaten before he was shot in the head. A metal fan used to gin cotton was attached to his neck with barbed wire. His decomposed, mutilated body was pulled from the river days later, weighed down by the fan.

Photographs of Till’s corpse, which was kept in an open coffin at the insistence of his mother for the world to see, became some of the most consequential images of racial violence against African Americans. Till’s body was taken to Chicago, where thousands waited in line to see him.

Erin B. Logan contributed to this report.

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