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Justice Department reopens black teen's 1955 murder case

The Justice Department said Monday it is reopening the investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager whose slaying while visiting Mississippi was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Justice Department said Monday it is reopening the investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager whose death while visiting Mississippi was an early catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Till was abducted from his uncle’s home in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955. The mutilated body of the 14-year-old from Chicago was found by fishermen three days later in the Tallahatchie River.

Pictures of the slaying shocked the world. Two white men charged with murder — Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam — were acquitted by an all-white jury. Both men have since died.

R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said a recent public television documentary about the killing and other new information brought to the Justice Department’s attention suggests that additional people still alive were involved in the killing.

We owe it to Emmett Till
"This brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice outraged a nation and helped galvanize support for the modern American civil rights movement,” Acosta said. “We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years some additional measure of justice remains possible.”

The five-year statute of limitations in effect at the time on any federal charges has long since expired but a state case could still be brought, Acosta said. The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors will work on the investigation with Joyce Chiles, district attorney for Mississippi’s 4th Judicial District.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who has pushed for reopening the case, said the recent PBS documentary indicated that seven more people may have been involved in Till’s kidnapping, murder or both.

“In this rare instance justice delayed will not be justice denied,” Schumer said Monday. “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.”

Airickca Gordon, a cousin of Till’s who was close to his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, said the family was elated at the news. Mamie Till Mobley, who became a civil rights activist and teacher, died in Chicago in 2003 at age 81.

“Even though she’s at rest, even though she’s now deceased, I feel her spirit will be so much at peace,” Gordon said. “It’s kind of sad she’s not here to experience it, but in my own kind of way, I think she knows.”

In 1956, Look magazine published an account of the slaying in which Milam admitted that he and Bryant did the killing, which occurred a few days after Till purportedly whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, at the Bryants’ store.

One man admits to slaying
“’Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble,”’ Milam was quoted as saying. “I’m going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

Milam said he beat Till and shot him in the head with a .45-caliber pistol, then tied a heavy metal fan to the body and dumped it in the river.

The NAACP and other individuals and groups have called repeatedly for reopening the case, which has been the subject of documentary films and books. In a 2003 letter to Mississippi officials, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said it was “time to address what remains an ugly mark” in state and U.S. history.

Other civil rights-era killings in Mississippi have been reopened with mixed results.

In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. But there has been little progress in an effort to bring murder charges for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss. Those killings were chronicled in the film “Mississippi Burning.”