BY NOW, almost 63 years later, the story of what happened to Emmett Till is known in all its horrible detail. The 14-year-old African American child from Chicago was visiting relatives in Money, Miss. After he supposedly flirted with a white woman, he was abducted, beaten, shot in the head and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 74-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire. After an all-white, all-male jury acquitted two white men of his murder, they confessed their guilt and, protected against double jeopardy, freely lived out their lives.
The fearless insistence by Emmett’s mother to have an open coffin to show the world what had been done to her child helped give rise to the civil rights movement. But there was never justice for his murder, and that makes the Justice Department’s quiet decision to reopen the case all the more intriguing. Revelation of a renewed inquiry into the 1955 case was contained in a federal report annually submitted to Congress under an unsolved civil rights crime law bearing the boy’s name. The report, submitted in late March, cited “the discovery of new information.”
No details were provided, and officials refused comment, but the trigger appears to have been an interview contained in a book published last year, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” in which Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman at the center of the case, admitted that a critical piece of her court testimony (being grabbed and verbally threatened with vulgar remarks) was not true. “You tell those stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true,” she told Duke University scholar Timothy B. Tyson in 2008.
She is 84, and her husband and his half brother who admitted guilt in a 1956 magazine article after their acquittal are dead. Decades of speculation have centered on whether other people were involved. It is unclear what charges could now be brought. Federal prosecutors previously concluded that the statute of limitations for federal charges had run out, and a Mississippi grand jury in 2007 refused to bring charges, including a manslaughter charge that local authorities had sought against Ms. Donham.
Relatives of Emmett welcomed the new probe. But some — including the author of the book that triggered the new inquiry — have questioned what the government is up to. A “completely hypocritical political show” to distract from the ongoing controversies of the Trump administration, said Mr. Tyson. Such skepticism is understandable given the clear disdain Mr. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have shown for issues of civil rights and equal justice. Sad that they never seem to see the need to address the inequalities that exist today in the justice system and that victimize black people.
But Emmett’s mother, who died in 2003 without ever getting justice for her son, was right to insist that we not look away from what was done in the name of white supremacy. Let’s hope this new look at the case brings some measure of justice for a crime that must never be forgotten.