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Department of Justice Reopens Investigation Into Emmett Till Case

New information arises in the case that shed light on racial violence and inspired the civil rights movement.

Danielle Germain

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The federal government has reopened the case of Emmett Till, whose brutal murder has  left a heavy mark on America’s heart for the last 60 years. The Justice Department told Congress in a report submitted in March that it has reopened the investigation into Till’s death “after receiving new information.”

Emmett Till was born on July 25, 1941 in Chicago. Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 when the young boy was accused of flirting with and whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. About four days after Till’s visit to the store, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him nearly beat him to death, gouged out his eyes, and shot him in the head. Till’s body was found three days later, in the Tallahatchie River.


When his body was returned to Chicago, Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket. Thousands attended Till’s funeral, rallying black support and white sympathy across the U.S.

“The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till, exposed the world to more than her son Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body,” a report found in Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans. “Her decision focused attention not only on U.S. racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy.”

Till’s original casket was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and is now on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The casket has its own exhibit in the museum; the casket is positioned on a high platform in a quiet sanctuary, replicating a funeral-like setting.

In September 1955, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by an all-white jury of Till’s kidnapping and murder. During an interview with Look magazine in 1956, Bryant and Milam admitted that they had killed Till. However, the two were protected by double jeopardy, a procedural defense that prevents an accused person from being tried again on the same charges. In 2004 the case was officially reopened by the United States Department of Justice. The defense team in the 1955 trial had questioned whether the body was that of Till, however in 2004, Till’s body was positively identified. After Milam and Bryant came forward, they were boycotted, threatened, attacked and humiliated by local residents. Milam died in 1980 at the age of 61, and Bryant died in 1994 at the age of 63. Before he died, Bryant didn’t express any grief or remorse for the crime he committed, stating “Emmett Till is dead. I don’t know why he just can’t stay dead.”

Early in 2017, it was reported that Carolyn Bryant Donham lied when she testified that Till touched her. He had only whistled, after leaving the store. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Donham was quoted as saying. Bryant admitted her lie to Tim Tyson, author of the book, The Blood of Emmett Till. Donham, — now in her 80s, lives in Raleigh, N.C.  Till’s accuser has made no comments about the reopening of the case.

At this time, The Justice Department declined to comment on any new evidence. The reopening of the investigation marks the first major development in the case since it was declared closed in December 2007.

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Danielle Germain (she/her/hers) is originally from Long Island, New York. She is a rising junior at The American University, majoring in Broadcast Journalism, and minoring in Political Science. She partakes in various activities on campus. Danielle is a Teacher's Assistant, the Vice President of Programming for Caribbean Circle, The Social Media Director and Web Manager for The Blackprint, Programming Coordinator for Founder's Week Committee, Senior Communications Strategist for AUSG Center for Advocacy and Student Equity or CASE, Secretary of the Junior Class Council and a Club Consultant for American University Club Council. After learning more about herself freshman year, Danielle became deeply interested in pushing diversity and inclusion forward. Since then, Danielle has started The Purpose, a bible study for students of color at AU. By creating a safe space on campus, she hopes that the voices of those who feel underrepresented are heard and also valued. In her free time, Danielle enjoys going to brunch and watching Gossip Girl. This past summer, Danielle served as the Corporate Communications Intern for Macy's Inc. Danielle has a passion for politics and a love for writing, and one day hopes to become a political commentator for CNN. She can be reached at dg0060a@student.american.edu.

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