Reopening the Emmett Till Case Is a Cynical Play
In a recent article, Vann R. Newkirk II argued that it’s unclear what could possibly come of the Justice Department investigation into the country’s most infamous lynching case.
The reopening of the Emmett Till case was announced on Thursday, July 12. While the case has in fact been open for quite some time, the public announcement offers the opportunity to reflect on basic questions about the relationships among truth, justice, and reconciliation.
The only potential accomplice to the murder still living is Carolyn Donham, 84, now of Raleigh, North Carolina. Vann R. Newkirk II writes for The Atlantic that “it’s doubtful any of the potential outcomes [of a reopened trial] would be proportionate to Donham’s admitted role in inciting men to lynch a child in defense of her honor.”
True enough, but there are other reasons to welcome the continuing investigation. I’ve written extensively about the commemoration of the Till murder, and one of the many lessons I’ve learned is this: The long-delayed pursuit of justice can spark racial reconciliation in the most unlikely of ways.
As I explain in Remembering Emmett Till (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press), Mississippi took a long time to commemorate the Till murder. Until 2005, the state did not contain a single built memorial to the memory of Emmett Till. After 49 years and 11 months, the silence was finally broken when, on July 1, blue roadside markers were erected for the dedication of a 30-mile stretch of Highway 49E as the “Emmett Till Memorial Highway.” Since 2005, millions of dollars have been invested in Till’s memory. There are now over twenty historical signs, a museum, an interpretive center, and, most prominently, a multi-million-dollar renovation to the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi—the site of the historic Emmett Till trial.
What changed in 2005? The answer to this question is complex, but part of it lies 133 miles southeast of Sumner, in the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. There, on June 21, 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter, 41 years to the day after he played a role in the infamous murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Energy from the long-delayed conviction radiated across the state, sparking conversations about race, history, and reconciliation.
Within months of the conviction, former Mississippi Governor William Winter worked with Susan Glisson, an unsung hero of grassroots racial reconciliation in Mississippi, to convene a group of civil rights leaders in Jackson to plan a statewide truth and reconciliation process. By the spring of 2006, under the leadership of Glisson, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation channeled the momentum of the Killen verdict into the successful passage of Senate Bill 2718, mandating teaching civil and human rights history in all Mississippi classrooms.
The Killen conviction had a direct effect on the memory of the Till murder. When the late Jerome Little—Tallahatchie County’s first black President of the Board of Supervisors—saw the way that local citizens came together in Philadelphia, Mississippi to talk about race and demand justice, he wondered if the same thing could be done in Tallahatchie County. Thus the Emmett Till Memorial Commission was founded.
Since its founding, the ETMC has transformed the racial culture of Tallahatchie County. At one of its earliest meetings, on June 20, 2006, member after member, both white and black, spoke against the long silence that had prevailed in the Delta on the subject of Till’s murder. According to the Tallahatchie County meeting minutes stored in the Special Collections at the University of Mississippi Library, one claimed that the silence was enforced by the White Citizens Council; another suggested that the “Klan had a hold on [the] county” and “harassed” those who broke the silence; another complained that children in the Delta didn’t know the story; and still another complained that he had to “bite his tongue.” By the end of the meeting, there was a palpable sense that the commission’s “first order of business” was simply to “acknowledge what happened.”
From this culture of silence, the ETMC has created a culture of remembrance and reconciliation. The biracial group of eighteen local citizens renovated the courtroom, created an eight-site “Civil Rights Driving Tour,” and funded an “Emmett Till Interpretive Center.” Most importantly, they use Till’s story to pursue racial reconciliation in the twenty-first-century Mississippi Delta.
All of this was sparked by the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, 41 years late. So, should Donham be prosecuted, 63 years after Till’s death? I believe she should. If history is any guide, the long-delayed conviction could, in addition to serving justice, spark local initiatives toward racial reconciliation across the country.
Vann R. Newkirk II replies:
First of all, thank you for your note, Professor Tell. I can’t wait to check out your book!
I’m sympathetic to your argument, and along with the prosecution of Byron De La Beckwith for the killing of Medgar Evers, I agree that the case of Edgar Ray Killen forms a key parallel to this modern moment. As with those cases, a trial today—when black people can actually serve on juries and due process is more solid—might certainly have a better outcome and provide more closure.
But I differ on a few things. First, Donham isn’t exactly De La Beckwith or Killen. The murderers in this case, who were let off by an obliging state, are long dead. I don’t know that the same kind of transformative valence exists in Donham’s case, although I grant there may be something to dismantling the cloak of white women’s honor that was used so often to commit racial violence in Mississippi.
The second point, though, is that you note that the Killen case sparked serious change in the state, but that it did so in a purposefully-built climate of reconciliation and honesty, as evidenced by the creation of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and SB 2718. These kinds of tools for helping grapple with the past may well be forthcoming in the handling of this case, but the current DOJ’s orientation toward black activism and racial justice makes that seem less likely. In any case, in order for any investigation—regardless of outcome—to help the black denizens of Mississippi and continue a long-overdue process of healing and reparation, it must be amenable to those things. It must help build the necessary preconditions for those things.
I just don’t have confidence yet that this investigation will do that, but I wouldn't mind being wrong at all.