The United States Justice Department on Monday announced that it was ending its investigation into the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, the Black teenager from Chicago who was abducted, tortured and killed after witnesses said he whistled at a white woman in Mississippi.
The Justice Department had reopened the probe after a 2017 book had quoted Carolyn Bryant Donham as saying she lied when she claimed that 14-year-old Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances while she was working in a store in the small community of Money in Mississippi.
The killing galvanised the civil rights movement after Till’s mother insisted on an open casket, and Jet magazine published photos of his brutalised body.
We examine what this case was all about and why it still holds resonance after over 65 years.
Who is Emmett Till?
Emmett Louis Till, born on 25 July 1941, was barely 14 years old when he took a trip to rural Mississippi to spend the summer with relatives.
On 24 August, Till went to the Bryant store with his cousins, and may have whistled at Carolyn Bryant. One must remember that the incident happened at a time when the divide between Blacks and Whites was predominant and the animosity between the two had worsened owing to the US Supreme Court's decision of overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that allowed racial segregation in public facilities.
Some witnesses state that 14-year-old Till then whistled at, touched the hand or waist of, or flirted with Carolyn Bryan as he was leaving the store.
In the early morning hours of 28 August, Roy Bryant, the cashier’s husband, and J W Milam, Bryant’s half-brother abducted Till at gunpoint. They then severely beat the boy, gouging out one of his eyes. They took him to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where they killed him with a single gunshot to the head. The two men tied the teen’s body to a large metal fan with a length of barbed wire before dumping the corpse into the river.
The two white men were tried on murder charges about a month after Till was killed, but an all-white Mississippi jury acquitted them.
Months later, they confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine. Bryant was married to Donham in 1955.
Galvanising the civil rights movement
Till's death galvanised America's then-budding civil rights movement. Emmett's mother insisted on an open coffin at the funeral, and the published photos of the boy's brutalised remains shocked the nation.
The murder trial pushed a generation of young African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement out of fear that such an incident could happen to friends, family, or even themselves.
The dancer Josephine Baker led a protest in Paris, and letters demanding justice for Till arrived at the White House from as far away as Norway and the Kremlin.
In fact, one could even say that it was this incident that spurred on Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks, who four days later refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. Many years afterwards she said: “I thought of Emmett Till and I couldn’t go back.”
Reopening of the case
The case was reopened in 2018 after a book cast doubt on the testimony of a white woman who was central to the case.
Carolyn Bryant Donham said Emmett had grabbed her by the waist, uttered a profanity and asked her for a date while she was alone in the family grocery store on the evening of 24 August 1955 in Money, Mississippi.
But a 2017 best-selling book, The Blood of Emmett Till, by historian Timothy Tyson, quoted her as recanting this story.
The author said she had indicated — in her first ever known interview — that her courtroom testimony six decades earlier about Emmett's purported sexual advance was unfounded.
However, in its statement on Monday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said that Donham denied ever disavowing her testimony.
“In closing this matter without prosecution, the government does not take the position that the state court testimony the woman gave in 1955 was truthful or accurate,” the news release said.
“There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events, which is contradicted by others who were with Till at the time, including the account of a living witness.”
Moreover, authorities concluded there was "insufficient evidence to prove that she ever told the professor [Mr Tyson] that any part of her testimony was untrue".
The FBI also said that "although the professor represented that he had recorded two interviews with her, he provided the FBI with only one recording, which did not contain any recantation".
Till family reacts
Till’s family said it was disappointed by the news that there will continue to be no accountability for the infamous lynching.
“Today is a day we will never forget,” Till’s cousin, the Reverand Wheeler Parker, was quoted as saying during a news conference in Chicago. “For 66 years we have suffered pain ... I suffered tremendously.”
Thelma Wright Edwards, Till's cousin, reacting to the news said: "I'm not surprised, but my heart is broken."
"I pinned diapers on Emmett. I lived with him, he was like a brother to me," she added. "I have no hate in my heart, but I had hoped we could get an apology. But that didn’t happen, nothing was settled. The case is closed, and we have to go on from here."
Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon echoed other family members that the government’s findings “came as no surprise.”
“I did not expect they would find new evidence… or be able to validate Carolyn Bryant recanting her story,” Gordon said, urging people to “look to the future.” “Where do we go from here? Even though we don’t feel we got justice, we still must move forward. Let’s figure out how we can continue to make change.”
With inputs from agencies