By Alan Blinder
The federal government has quietly revived its investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy whose abduction and killing in 1955 remains among the starkest and most searing examples of racial violence in the South.
In a report submitted to Congress in late March, the Department of Justice said it had reopened its inquiry “based upon the discovery of new information,” but it did not elaborate and declined to comment further on Thursday. The government has not announced any new charges in connection with its investigation, and it is unclear whether prosecutors will ultimately be able to bring a case against anyone.
But the Justice Department’s decision to devote new attention to the case is a demonstration of how deeply the episode resonates more than 60 years after Emmett was killed in rural Mississippi and photographs of his mutilated body were published, so staggering the nation that the case is now seen as a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
Emmett was from Chicago and had been visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta when he went into a store and encountered one of its owners, a white woman who ultimately complained that the teenager had grabbed her and made crude sexual remarks. He was kidnapped and killed days later, his body tethered to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and then cast into a river.
[Read about the woman linked to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till]
Although two white men eventually confessed to a magazine that they had killed Emmett, they had previously been acquitted by a Mississippi jury. The two men, like many others considered to be possibly connected to the episode, are now deceased.
But the woman who made the allegations against Emmett remains alive, and her account has shifted through the years. In a book published last year, the researcher Timothy B. Tyson reported that the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, had acknowledged that the entirety of her story was “not true” but that she did not remember the precise sequence of events.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Ms. Donham told Dr. Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
The Justice Department, whose new inquiry was first reported by The Associated Press, last began a significant review of the Till case in 2004, but prosecutors ultimately determined that the statute of limitations had left them without any charges they could pursue in a federal court. A state grand jury in Mississippi did not return any indictments, either.