The Justice Department yesterday reopened an investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy whose death in Mississippi served as an early catalyst for the nation’s fledgling civil rights movement.
“Although too late to save Emmett, the slaying helped galvanize opposition to the brutality of segregation and Jim Crow,” said Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta, who leads the department’s civil rights division. “In fact, it was just 100 days later that Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of the bus.”
Mr. Acosta said a public television documentary and other new information suggest that participants in the killing still might be alive.
“We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years some additional measure of justice remains possible,” he said.
The five-year statute of limitations on federal charges has long been expired, but state authorities still could bring charges based on the results of the federal investigation, Mr. Acosta said. The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors have assigned to work on the investigation with Joyce Chiles, district attorney for Mississippi’s 4th Judicial Circuit.
The teenager was dragged from his bed, kidnapped and murdered on Aug. 28, 1955, while visiting his uncle in Mississippi. Mr. Acosta said the boy’s crime was that he “purportedly whistled at a white woman and, perhaps, touched her hand.”
Less than a month after the discovery of the body, Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, were tried but acquitted by a jury of 12 white men. It was Mr. Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, 21 at the time, who said the teenager had whistled at her.
Both men, who later confessed to the killing in a Look magazine interview, have died.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other civil rights organizations and leaders have called repeatedly for the government to reopen the case, which has been the subject of several documentary films and books.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat who had called for the case to be reopened, said the Public Broadcasting Service documentary “The Murder of Emmett Till” indicated that others might have been involved.
He said he was looking for the Justice Department to “conduct a thorough, complete and speedy investigation as time is of the essence because of the advanced age of many of the potential witnesses.”
In the Look interview, Milam said he told the teenager he was “tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble.” He said he told the boy he sought to “make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”
The two men were accused of abducting the boy from his uncle’s home in Money, Miss., and beating and then fatally shooting him before throwing his mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River, where it was discovered three days later.
Milam told the magazine he and Bryant beat the boy, shot him in the head with a .45-caliber pistol, tied a metal stand to his neck with barbed wire and pushed his body into the river. Because they had been acquitted, they could not be tried again.
“The jury acquitted, despite eyewitness testimony as to the defendants’ identities,” Mr. Acosta said. “In closing, defense counsel had appealed to jury members’ white heritage, suggesting that their Anglo-Saxon fathers would turn over in their graves if they lacked the courage to free these men.”
Mr. Acosta noted that the jury deliberated only 67 minutes, although one juror suggested at the time that it would not have taken that long if they hadn’t stopped to drink a soda pop.
Although the boy’s face had been battered beyond recognition and a bullet hole was in his head, his mother, Mamie Till, held an open-casket funeral to show the world “what they did to my boy.” Mrs. Till died last year in Chicago. She was 81.
“Over four days, thousands witnessed the injuries on Emmett’s body. Pictures and magazine articles of Emmett’s murder shocked our country,” Mr. Acosta said. “Emmett Till’s brutal murder and grotesque miscarriage of justice moved this nation.”