I was touring the museum, exiting an exhibit on the life and assassination of Evers, the former state NAACP field secretary, when I received a curious news alert. The Associated Press reported that the Department of Justice had announced it was reopening its investigation into the killing of Till, whose mutilated body was discovered by boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River in 1955. According to the news story, the DOJ announced its intentions in a report from March 2018 that’s just recently been revealed. The move was reportedly sparked by a revelation in The Blood of Emmett Till, a 2017 book by historian Timothy B. Tyson, that the accusation that had allegedly prompted Till’s lynching was false. Specifically, Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to Tyson that her claim, which she made to her then-husband Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam, that Till had sexually harassed her was a lie.
It’s unclear just what could possibly come out of the case’s reopening. Bryant and Milam are dead, and they were acquitted by a kangaroo court, after the defense told an all-white jury “that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.” Donham turns 84 this month, and, as detailed in a forthcoming book, Let the People See: The Story of Emmett Till by Loyola University Chicago historian Elliott Gorn, she was already tried as an accessory to the lynching.* “District Attorney Chiles decided to bring one case to the Leflore County grand jury, against Carolyn Bryant as an accomplice to her husband and brother-in-law,” Gorn writes. “The jurors refused to endorse a true bill, the evidence was just too thin. Too many people were dead, too many memories cloudy, too few witnesses willing to cooperate. None of the nineteen jurors—twelve women and seven men, divided about evenly along racial lines—voted to indict.”
We already have a good sense of how Bryant and Milam killed Till, as they were brazen enough to admit to the crime in a 1956 interview with Look Magazine. If that weren’t enough, in a previous phase of the investigation the DOJ unearthed a recording of Bryant telling an informant that he’d “put [Till’s] ass in the Tallahatchie River.” The investigation’s earlier iteration, which was closed in 2007, came up zeroes, since Bryant and Milam had died by then. “In the end, the Federal agents simply reported their findings and made no recommendations regarding prosecutions,” Gorn writes.
A reader responds: The Long-Delayed Pursuit of Justice
Till’s kin, burdened most by the blatant miscarriage of justice in the case, understandably seem to seek some measure of closure, and look to this announcement with hope. “We want the process to work, and we want justice to prevail for Emmett,” Till’s cousin Deborah Watts told USA Today. Donham’s confession has likely made that drive for closure even more maddening. The terror of the Bryant clan didn’t die with the child or with the men, and the laughing and winking admissions have been taunts. Lynchings are about power, and timeless impunity is that power’s ultimate expression.