Justice Department Announces Emmett Till's Case Remains Open

The federal government has closed its investigations into six civil rights cold cases, but will continue to investigate the horrific murder of Black teenager Emmett Till in 1955. The Department of Justice (DOJ) made the announcement in a report to Congress disclosing the civil rights investigations that are still active.

The investigation into Till’s death was relaunched after a book by Timothy B. Tyson revealed a key witness in the case had lied. Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till quoted Carolyn Donham, a white woman then known as Carolyn Bryant, admitting in 2008 that she had lied about Till making sexual advances at her family store in 1955.

“She said with respect to the physical assault on her, or anything menacing or sexual, that part isn’t true,” Tyson said in a 2017 interview on CBS This Morning. After his book was published, Tyson said FBI agents spoke to him and he turned over his interview recordings and other research materials.

Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955 when he was accused of whistling at Donham. The woman initially claimed Till grabbed her, whistled, and made sexual advances at her while she worked as a cashier at a grocery store.

Donham’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted Till, beat him, and shot him in the head. The boy’s mutilated body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. He had been tied with barbed wire to a large metal fan.

Bryant and Milam were charged with murder but were acquitted by an all-white, all male jury. According to CBS News, the men later confessed to killing Till in a magazine interview but were never retried. The two are now dead.

The DOJ’s report said Till’s relatives are encouraged that the case remains open. However, they are anxious for it to be resolved.

“We want them to go ahead and do something,” Rev. Wheeler Parker, Till’s 80-year-old cousin told the Associated Press. “What is the holdup?” Parker was with Till at the store and the night he was abducted.

Deborah Watts, another one of Till’s cousins, told the AP the family has not had contact with Donham. “I would have a conversation with her,” Watts said. “The truth needs to be told. I think Carolyn holds the key to that.”

The DOJ’s report on civil rights investigations, which is required under a law named for Till, did not reveal any updates in the investigation or outline when the probe will conclude. Despite being an open case, Parker told the AP he does not expect much to result from the investigation.

“At least they are touching it, and values have changed,” Parker said. “At least America has reached the point where they will investigate and you can’t go out and just kill people.”

Till’s brutal murder and his mother’s insistence on an open-casket funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Chicago helped spark the Civil Rights movement. Till’s mother also pushed to have photos of her son’s body and his funeral published in Jet magazine, the sister magazine of leading Black magazine Ebony. Martin Luther King Jr. called the boy’s murder “one of the most brutal and inhumane crimes of the 20th century.”

While Till’s murder case remains open, the DOJ revealed it has closed investigations into six other racially motivated killings from 1940 to 1973. Authorities said they have been unable to make advancements in those cases because suspects or witnesses have died or the law bars charges against people who were already tried and acquitted, the AP reported.

The Justice Department is no longer investigating the deaths of Elbert Williams in Brownsville, Tennessee in 1940; Dan Carter Sanders in Johnston Township, North Carolina in 1946; Peter Francis in Perry, Maine in 1965; Lee Culbreath in Portland, Arkansas in 1965; John Thomas Jr. in West Point, Mississippi in 1970; and Milton Lee Scott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1973. All of the victims were Black with the exception of Francis, who was a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

The report noted that Scott was shot by federal agents during an attempted arrest and that no new evidence was found to support bringing charges.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.