Reopening the Emmett Till Case Is a Cynical Play

The Justice Department’s investigation of the country’s most infamous lynching case won't implicate a society full of accomplices.

M. Spencer Green / AP

JACKSON, Miss.—If there is a fight to be had for the future of America, it will be waged in the Delta. The great alluvial plain to the west and north of here, stretching from Vicksburg on up to Memphis, and expanding out like a fan from the mighty Mississippi River, is a storied home to movement, and is the proving ground of the laws and legends that make the country what it is today. Past the soybean farms and pine stands, the cotton plantations and catfish ponds, there’s a political significance to this agricultural expanse. The Mississippi Delta is a reservoir of demographic strength—the blackest part of the blackest state in the country. But it is also one of the poorest places in America, and a region where the struggle for basic human rights is not yet settled.

At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, it is made clear just how the Mississippi of before begat the Mississippi of today. The state was built on ethnic cleansing, land theft, and terror; and it was maintained even after slavery through terrorism. It’s because of the blackness of the region that the version of Jim Crow implemented there was the zenith—or the nadir—of the form, a roiling campaign of theft and intimidation that over the course of a century watered the fertile soil of the Delta with somewhere near 600 lynchings. There at the museum, the names of Mississippi martyrs like Medgar Evers and Reverend George Lee are raised in honor. Chief among them is Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose lynching proved a horror too far.

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.

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.

In this way, the torment of Till’s family resembles that of Evers’s family, before a jury convicted his assassin, white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, of murder 31 years after the slaying. “Those familiar with this man know this is the first time in years he has not ranted and raved and taunted,” said Evers’s widow Myrlie at a 1994 press conference after the conviction.

The Justice Department cannot stop the taunting. It can’t make the men who lynched Till any less dead, and it can’t—as was the case with De La Beckwith—at least force a guilty killer to look his victims in the eye. Even the question of Donham’s guilt is a difficult one for the DOJ to answer, as it would involve the indictment of the department’s past and present versions. Donham’s testimony always seemed a self-serving lie, and her late-life admission seemed a conscience-clearing final testament of an elderly woman. The decades-long decision by investigators, local and federal, to treat Donham without any meaningful skepticism constituted a conscious choice to value the honor of a white woman over justice for a dead black boy. That choice is only reinforced by this reopening.

Even if federal prosecutors brought the elderly woman to court, it’s doubtful any of the potential outcomes would be proportionate to Donham’s admitted role in inciting men to lynch a child in defense of her honor, or for her willing role as the lifeline for those men in court.

Perhaps her testimony or full cooperation could help close the book on the conspiracy that the DOJ chased the last time, on the issue of whether the Bryant boys were aided at any point by the white-supremacist leaders in local Citizens’ Councils, and, if so, how deep the conspiracy ran. But a decent answer already exists there as well. As Gorn notes: “But certainly the good folks in the Citizens’ Councils had done their part, poisoning the well of public opinion without getting their hands dirty. The same was true of many members of the local legal establishment, and of Mississippi politicians and editors too: they shed no blood, but they made sure that those who did never paid for it.”

The DOJ probably won’t—and, again, probably can’t—add anything to the greater American conspiracy of Till’s death and the fact that white people in the county and across the country were distant accomplices. Remember, again, that lynchings are about power, and that Till’s killing was intended to do violence to a people and a cause. A decade before Till’s death, white-supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo feverishly warned his fellow white Mississippians that they were “sitting on a volcano,” and claimed that “white people will be justified in going to any extreme to keep the nigger from voting.” In 1955, just a year after Brown v. Board of Education ordered the integration of schools and started really stirring that volcano, men like Bryant and Milam went to those extremes.

The larger conspiracy around Till’s death, and the brutal assassinations of so many of Mississippi’s sons, daughters, and descendants, is the very existence of the current status quo, which white violence built. It’s a status quo where the ballot has still never been fully extended to black people—and may well be retreating. It’s one where both economic outcomes and opportunities are disparate, where life in the Delta itself is abridged and food insecurity is still rampant, and where criminal-justice outcomes disfavor black people at almost every juncture.

That’s a status quo in which Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Justice Department are implicated as well, an ironic complication to their interest in closing this case. At a press conference Friday, Tyson called the reopening of the case an “utterly cynical, completely hypocritical political show.” As he points out, “there’s no political casualties. This is a low-cost thing.”

But some version of closure could have its uses for those who no longer wish to confront the legacy of Jim Crow. The ghosts of the martyrs have haunted the South, always rallying the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers and helping create generations of activists who demand ever more from the hegemonies that extracted blood and money from them. And the unsolved nature of Till’s death has been a parallel to the unsolved status of black people in America, a reminder of the restitution and reconciliation that have long been demanded, but have never been granted. The eternal taunt of the Bryant boys is an inconvenience for those who maintain that the country is past all that already.

I lingered there in the museum, as closing time came and people filed out. I scanned the black pillars filled with names of black Mississippians who’d been lynched, examined the high-powered Enfield rifle used to shoot Evers in the back, and leaned in to read the issue of Jet magazine that featured Till’s mangled, bloated, eyeless face in his casket. It occurred to me that this and other museums like it are as much cenotaphs as anything else, monuments to the dead—named and nameless—killed in the name of the idol of white supremacy. But the monuments are not themselves dead; they serve justice in a way that no federal prosecutor can. They remember, they honor, and they provoke, implicating not just the active assailants, but the abettors. In those places, the investigation is ever ongoing.

*This article originally misstated Elliott Gorn’s place of employment as Purdue University. We regret the error.