The Justice Department has reopened the investigation into one of the most high-profile slayings during the civil rights movement. But confidence in its pursuit of justice for black Americans in 2018 remains low among some Americans.
The Associated Press first reported that new information published in a 2017 book about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago resident visiting rural Mississippi, prompted federal investigators to reopen the probe this year.
Till was killed after being accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, at her grocery store in Money, Miss., in 1955. That August, Till was kidnapped, tortured and shot. Bryant's former husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were prosecuted for Till’s death before an all-white jury acquitted them after less than two hours of deliberation. The men went on to admit to a journalist that they had killed Till, but both died without being convicted.
Last year, historian Timothy Tyson wrote “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which included the first known interview with Bryant, who admitted that Till had not come on to her sexually, contrary to her initial testimony.
Multiple aspects of this story have captured the nation's attention for the past six decades, including the fact that those responsible for Till's death never faced the consequences. But to some paying attention to the Justice Department's recent decision, Bryant's admission more than half a century later — with no consequences — is simply a reminder of how unevenly applied justice is in America.
Bryant, now known as Carolyn Donham, is in her 80s. For perjury, or lying under oath, the statute of limitations in federal court is five years, but some still want to see Donham held responsible for the consequences of her alleged dishonesty. Her critics argue that advanced age should not absolve her of having to pay the consequences for her actions — lying under oath, according to the book. But whatever hope that some, including lawmakers, have that the Till family will see more steps toward having justice served is being tempered by a lack of confidence in the department's current leadership, specifically Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions has been on the receiving end of criticism from liberals questioning the former lawmaker's commitment to protecting the civil rights of people of color past or present. The Fix’s Amber Phillips previously reported that a Senate committee denied Sessions a federal judgeship in 1986 after his former colleagues testified that he used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought the white supremacist group was “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
“I think he’s a racist, I think he’s a throwback and I don’t mind saying it, any day of the week,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) previously told The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart.
And many other Americans have shared similar beliefs.
It’s not yet clear what outcomes the Justice Department can pursue after reopening the case. But given Bryant's admission, along with the long-standing requests from lawmakers, activists and other Americans that more be done to ensure that someone be held accountable for Till's murder, the decision was welcome news for some.
“Last year, I called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen this case in light of new information that was revealed,” Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D.-Ill.) said Thursday in a statement. “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."
But Sessions's Justice Department has a credibility problem with sizable segments of the American public when it comes to proving his commitment to finding justice for people of color.
The Post's Devlin Barrett previously reported that under Sessions's leadership, the Justice Department has rolled back efforts to investigate police departments before releasing public reports about their failings — a practice put in place during the Obama administration after activists complained about law enforcement's bias against people of color. And I previously wrote about how Sessions and his staff have been criticized by members of Congress for labeling black activists a national security threat.
For the Justice Department to improve its reputation on addressing civil rights — especially among people of color and those who have major concerns about the leadership of President Trump and Sessions — the department will probably need to increase the attention it gives to matters of racial discrimination taking place in 2018.