U.S. reopens 1955 case of racial killing of teen

Films stir new interest in death of Emmett Till

aging participants sought

May 11, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department reopened the investigation yesterday into the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth whose 1955 killing illuminated the racism of the South and ignited the emerging civil rights movement.

It has been almost a half-century since the body of Till, beaten and shot because he purportedly whistled at or otherwise offended a white woman, was dragged from a Mississippi river, an industrial fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.

No one has ever been convicted of the crime, though it has been known almost from the beginning that at least two men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, both now dead, kidnapped Till at gunpoint from the home of relatives in the middle of the night in August 1955.

They were tried later that year by an all-white jury and quickly acquitted.

Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta said the Justice Department believes others were involved, and it intends to pursue them even though they are likely in their 80s and 90s.

"This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanize support for the modern American civil rights movement," he said.

"We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to his family, we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years some additional measure of justice remains possible."

Federal officials will investigate the case jointly with Mississippi state officials. Federal statutes of limitations in place in 1955 bar the department from bringing federal charges so long after the crime. But Acosta said Mississippi officials have a number of state charges that can be brought, some of which could call for the death penalty.

The department was spurred to reopen the case largely because of fresh attention the killing has received in recent documentaries, most notably one by Brooklyn filmmaker Keith Beauchamp. The film has not been completed, but it has won support from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Beauchamp said yesterday that his nine-year investigation revealed that as many as 10 people might have been involved in the crime.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Charles B. Rangel, both New York Democrats, held a joint news conference last month that focused largely on Beauchamp's work and called for the department to investigate the allegations. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has also called on Mississippi officials to reinvestigate the killing, as did Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who after crusading for decades on behalf of her son, died in Chicago last year at 81.

"In this rare instance, justice delayed will not be justice denied," Schumer said in a statement yesterday. "I hope the Justice Department will conduct a thorough, complete and speedy investigation, as time is of the essence because of the advanced age of many of the potential witnesses."

For years after Till's death in the Mississippi town of Money, his mother begged the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate. Neither would.

Several months after their acquittal by an all-white, all-male jury in 1955, Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000. They described how they beat Till, tortured him and shot him through the head before throwing him into the Tallahatchie River.

"We were never able to scare him," Milam said of Till. "They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless. ... What else could we do? He was hopeless.

"I said, `I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I'm going to make an example of you,'" Milam said he told Till.

The horror of the crime shocked much of the nation. But it was Till's mother in the days after his death who brought the murder to the forefront of the American consciousness. Mobley refused to allow the funeral director to patch up Till's mangled face and body or close the coffin lid. She said then that she wanted the world to see what had happened to her son.

The world did. Thousands of people passed through the Chicago church where Till was laid out for viewing. Photos of the beaten body ran in newspapers and magazines nationwide.

The precise details of what transpired on the hot August day in 1955 that led to the killing are not known. Till had come to Money from Chicago to visit his great-aunt and great-uncle, Moses and Elizabeth Wright, for the summer.

After a day of picking cotton, he and his friends went into a small grocery store owned by Bryant to buy bubble gum. Bryant and Milam were out of town; Bryant's wife, Carolyn, a recent high-school dropout and beauty pageant winner, waited on Till.

Newspaper accounts at the time say Carolyn Bryant accused Till of whistling at her. Till's mother later said Till would often whistle to overcome his stutter.

At trial, Carolyn Bryant testified that Till also made "ugly remarks" and touched her hand.

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