Revisiting the Case of Emmett Till

Nicole Rojas
Aug 28, 2020 - 8:00

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It’s been 65 years since a 14-year-old boy was kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Emmett Tills’ murderers were able to get away with his lynching after they were acquitted by an all-white jury. 

In the summer of 1955, Emmett was visiting family in Money, Mississippi, from Chicago when he went to a store owned by Carolyn Bryant Donham and her then-husband Roy Bryant. 

Donham first accused Emmett of whistling at her, but later changed her story several times. According to The New York Times, she claimed in court that Emmett made physical contact with her and spoke to her in crude, sexual conduct. Donham also told federal investigators that he had touched her hand. 

Her accusations led her husband and his half-brother J.W. Milam to kidnap, torture, shoot and ultimately kill Emmett days later. Emmett’s battered body, which was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, was found tied to a 75-pound cotton gin fan with barbed wire. The boy’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, was forced to travel to Mississippi to see her son’s body. 

Emmett’s swollen body was unrecognizable, but the signs of torture were visible. According to The Washington Post, the only thing that identified Emmett was his ring. 

Despite the testimonies of witnesses, Bryant and Milam were acquitted and set free. It was only after they were acquitted that Bryant and Milam confessed to lynching Emmett. They were never prosecuted and are now long dead. 

In 2008, Donham spoke to researcher Timothy B. Tyson and admitted to making up accusations against Emmett, according to The New York Times. Donham told Tyson that it was “not true” that Emmett had grabbed her or made vulgar comments. She added that “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” 

Mamie Till Calls on Black Press to Report Her Son’s Murder

After seeing her son’s battered and swollen body, Till-Mobley called one of the country’s leading Black newspapers, the Chicago Defender, and Black-led magazines Ebony and Jet to report and publish what the two white men had done to her baby. She then made a decision that would help spark the Civil Rights movement: She held an open-casket funeral and invited everyone to see. 

“I think everybody needed to know what happened to Emmett Till,” Till-Mobley said, according to PBS. The funeral was held in a church in the South Side of Chicago, where 50,000 people saw what had been done to Emmett. Photos of the boy’s body were published by Jet magazine for all to see. 

FBI Reopens Case

In 2004, the FBI reopened the case to figure out if other individuals were involved in Emmett’s murder. The following year, Emmett’s body was exhumed to undergo an autopsy, the FBI said. However, in 2006, the agency announced that it confirmed the Department of Justice’s earlier conclusion that a five-year statute of limitations for any federal criminal civil rights violations had passed, therefore barring federal prosecutors from bringing about additional charges. 

The FBI renewed its investigation in 2017 following the release of Tyson’s book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.” Tyson, who had interviewed Donham about her accusations, told The Associated Press that he was contacted by the FBI after his book was published and that he gave them interview recordings and research materials. 

The researcher and author, however, said he did not believe his research would spur new charges. The FBI has yet to release its findings. 

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a senior 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 Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

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