More than 60 years have passed since 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Miss., after reportedly whistling at a white woman. His murderers were never convicted, despite testimony against them and a later confession.
But on Thursday, in the latest development in a case that remains a touchstone of the civil rights movement, the Associated Press reported news found within a Justice Department report issued earlier this year: the government is reopening Till’s case, In re Emmett Till, “after receiving new information.”
A reinvestigation of this case could be a rare chance to bring some closure to one of the most most vivid examples of racial violence in the South, from a moment when the U.S. was on the brink of the Civil Rights Era.
Here are five things to know about the original Emmett Till case:
Who Was Emmett Till?
In 1955, Emmett Till, a Chicago native, was sent south to Mississippi to visit his uncle Mose Wright on a summer visit to the hometown of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley.
At the time, the town of Money was controlled by a white minority and much of the black population, including Wright, were sharecroppers. Before leaving Chicago, his mother reportedly warned Till, “to be very careful… to humble himself to the extent of getting on his knees,” as TIME originally reported in the immediate wake of the case. During the trial she would tell the jurors that, as the son of a working-class family from Chicago, he wasn’t really prepared for the full brunt of the segregated south and the violence it could hold for him.
What Happened to Emmett Till?
On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and a few other boys went to the grocery store in Money, Miss., to buy gum. What exactly happened there remains somewhat uncertain. According to some reports, Till told the other boys during that trip that his girlfriend at home was white, which led them to dare him to ask out the white cashier, Carolyn Bryant, thinking he would never be so bold. At that time in the South, even though Till was still an adolescent, such an action would have been dangerous. Till’s friends watched him buy candy. According to some, he said something to Carolyn Bryant; others say he whistled.
Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, said that she told him Till had made lewd gestures, grabbed her and whistled. He and his brother-in-law J.W. Milam decided to take the law into their own hands and drove to Wright’s house, demanding to see Till. As Wright pleaded with the men not to take him, the men forced Till into their car at gunpoint and drove him away.
Three days later Till’s corpse was found in the Tallahatchie River, unrecognizable from his wounds and decomposition. He had been beaten — his head was smashed in and shot — and a 75 lb. cotton-gin fan was attached to his neck with barbed wire. Wright was only able to identify the body as his nephew from the initialed ring still on his hand.
What Happened During the Original Trial?
The trial began late September in Sumner, the seat of the Tallahatchie County courthouse.
According to coverage by PBS, the white townspeople raised $10,000 to support the defense case of Bryant and Milam, though they probably did not need the donations to persuade the all-white, all-male jury not to convict. Members of the community resented press from northern states coming down to cover the issue — especially black journalists, who were relegated to a card table in the courtroom and berated by the local sheriff.
Despite testimony from Wright, who told the jury Bryant and Milam were the ones who abducted Till from his home, and the testimony of Willie Reed, who saw Till with the men and heard his screams coming from Milam’s shed, the jury acquitted the pair after only 67 minutes of deliberation.
The defense attorney for Bryant and Milam told the jury before his closing remarks that it they didn’t not free the men, “your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men,” according to PBS.
The deliberations reportedly took an hour only because the jury had “stopped to drink pop.”
Then, on Jan. 24, 1956, Look Magazine ran an exclusive account of the murder in which Bryant and Milam detailed how they killed Till. In the article, Milam said they hadn’t planned to kill Till, but he didn’t know his place and so they decided “it was time a few people got put on notice.”
Because of rules against double jeopardy, the pair — who have since died — were never tried again, despite their confession of guilt.
How Did Emmett Till Affect the Civil Rights Movement?
Back in Chicago, Mamie Till had done something surprising: Despite urgings from local authorities in Money to bury the body as quickly as possible, she requested that her son be sent back home, where she decided to hold an open-casket funeral.
She wanted to “let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said. Among the thousands of people in the black community who attended the funeral were representatives of Jet Magazine, which then ran an exclusive photograph of Mamie Till staring down at her son’s battered body. The photograph helped force Americans around the country to see the damage done by racism, in the form of a murdered 14-year-old.
When the Look confession ran only a few months later, it sparked even more national uproar as the country began to experience the first waves of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The L.A. Times later reported that “If Rosa Parks showed the potential of defiance, [some historians] say, Emmett Till’s death warned of a bleak future without it.”
Why Is the Emmett Till Case Being Re-Opened Now?
As the Justice Department report explains, this is not the first time Till’s case has been reconsidered. The Department was asked to investigate again in 2004 and determined at the time there was no federal jurisdiction; in 2007, a state grand jury in Mississippi, to which to case had been referred, decided not to issue charges.
But that same year saw the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007. That law set up a system with the Justice Department responsible for investigating civil-rights-related cases from prior to 1970 that resulted in death but remained unsolved, with a mandatory annual status report. (That’s the report from which this week’s news was derived).
Though the “new evidence” that has prompted the Department of Justice to re-open the case this time is unspecified, observers have speculated that it must be related to information released in Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till. In an interview with Tyson for the book, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman Till was accused of making advances toward, told Timothy Tyson in an interview for his 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till, that, contrary to her testimony at the first trial, he did not actually grab her or threaten her. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she admitted.
The news prompted Till’s family to push for a new investigation.
Mamie Till Mobley, who died in 2003, will never be able to see her son’s killers incarcerated — but perhaps this new investigation will bring a sense of closure to a case so unjust that it sparked a revolution through the U.S.