US investigators are revisiting Emmett Till’s murder because a historian did their work for them

Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched.
Emmett Till was 14 when he was lynched.
Image: AP
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Without much fanfare, the US Justice Department has reopened its investigation into the 1955 lynching of an African American teenager, Emmett Till. That’s thanks in part to a book published in 2017, which revealed that the white woman he was accused of flirting with and accosting in a grocery store lied about what happened, the Associated Press reports.

In August of 1955, Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who was in Mississippi visiting relatives, walked into a grocery store run by Carolyn Donham with her husband. Donham has described various versions of that encounter, in court and over the years, including saying that Till whistled at her, used vulgar sexual language, was menacing, and physically grabbed her.

A few days after that encounter, Till’s decomposed body, tied to a fan with barbed wire, was found in a river. The two key suspects in his kidnapping, brutal beating, and murder—Donham’s husband and another man—were acquitted by an all-white jury, though they later confessed to the murder. Till’s death, and the open-casket funeral that his mother insisted upon to show the world the horror of what happened to her son, served as a powerful catalyst for the US civil rights movement.

Both suspects have since died. A 2004 investigation by the FBI failed to secure indictments of others involved in the killing, or apparently to uncover a pretty crucial detail: Some of Donham’s account of what happened in that grocery store was false. (Though her testimony was ruled inadmissible in court, details of her story still featured in the trial’s closing statements.)

Donham reached out to the historian Timothy B. Tyson in 2008, and told him that Till actually hadn’t assaulted her, whistled at her or made sexual advances. Of those allegations, she told Tyson, “that part is not true.” In Tyson’s book, The Blood of Emmett Till, which was released last year, she is quoted as saying, “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

Tyson reacted to the news that the Justice Department is reopening the investigation with some skepticism. In a press conference, he called it an “utterly cynical, completely hypocritical political show”—and an attempt by the Trump administration to improve its civil rights profile. “There’s no one to prosecute” for the murders, Tyson said.

Some have called for Donham, who is still living, to face charges:

Both the FBI’s field office in Mississippi and the Department of Justice declined to comment, and instead pointed Quartz to a Justice Department release (pdf)—a broad progress report on DOJ prosecutions of pre-1980 racially motivated murders. The re-opening of the Till case is only briefly alluded to in the 43-page document.

“The Till case has been re-opened by DOJ based upon the discovery of new information,” the report says on page 30. “Because the matter is ongoing, the department can provide no further information about the current investigation.”

Some expressed skepticism about whether a Department of Justice run by attorney general Jeff Sessions, who has a history of controversial statements on race, in the administration of US president Donald Trump, will effectively handle the re-opened case: