Department of Justice reopens Emmett Till case

Picture of Emmett Till
Emmett Till. Photo: FSU

New evidence in the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi has surfaced, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the case. The DOJ will not say what information has come to light to elicit the new investigation, but it is part of the DOJ’s efforts to solve civil rights-era so-called “cold cases.”

Till was an African American teenager killed by two white men after he was accused of sexual assault. His death shocked the nation and, some scholars say, fueled Martin Luther King, Jr.’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Davis Houck, a scholar at Florida State University who helps curate FSU’s Emmett Till archival collection, speculated the investigation might have something to do with Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Till of sexual assault and set off the events in 1955 that led to tragedy.

“It’s great to know the U.S. government is taking an interest in this and pursuing justice,” Houck said.

Two white Mississippi men were prosecuted for Till’s death a month after the brutal murder, but both were acquitted by a jury. Later the men confessed to the crime to a journalist, the DOJ February report says, but nothing was ever legally pursued again.

The teenaged Till, down from Chicago to visit family, was viciously beaten and his body was later discovered by authorities in the Tallahatchie River. The two men prosecuted for the crime, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, are dead. Carolyn Bryant was Roy Bryant’s wife at the time of Till’s death and is still living.

FSU is home to the only comprehensive Emmett Till archival collection nationwide, and it contains key documents that raise questions about many aspects of the case.

The DOJ’s actions could, Houck hopes, offer closure for Till’s family.

“It matters deeply to his family. It’s been 63 years later, and they’ve never had justice. It’s an open wound for them,” Houck said. “But in a bigger picture, the case has really become iconic in injustices – especially against young black men. Especially when there’s a case where justice hasn’t been done, Emmett Till serves as an analogy. His case kind of stands in for some of the other cases.”

CD Davidson-Hiers is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Florida State University with a degree in Creative Writing and French. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Golden Key honors societies, and has received multiple writing awards for fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Prior to joining the Florida Phoenix, CD worked at the Tallahassee Democrat and has bylines in Tallahassee Magazine. She is a native of Pensacola and currently lives in Tallahassee with her tabby cat, Faulkner.

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