Six Decades On, Emmett Till Investigation Continues

The federal government is still investigating the brutal slaying of 14-year-old Emmett Till more than 60 years after his death. A Justice Department report issued to Congress about civil rights cold case investigations lists the black teenager’s killing as being among the unit’s active cases. The report doesn’t provide any update on the Till investigation or indicate when it might conclude. The fact that the case remains open means new charges could be brought in the future.

Till’s death in 1955 helped spur the civil rights movement. Till, who was from Chicago, was abducted from a relatives’ home after being accused of whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, at a country store in Money, Mississippi. He was beaten to death and his body was found in a river days later.

Bryant’s then-husband Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, both white, were charged with murder, but were acquitted by an all-white jury. Later, the men confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. They weren’t retried and both have since died.

The investigation, closed in 2007, was reopened after a book was released that indicated a key witness had lied. In “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson, Carolyn Donham is quoted as saying she wasn’t truthful when she testified that Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances towards her. After the book was published, Tyson reportedly turned over interview recordings and other research materials to FBI agents that contacted him.

The report from the Justice Department shows that it has closed investigations into six other apparently racially motivated killings. Those cases included 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 1973 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1973.

All the victims were black except Culbreath, who was a member of the Passamaquoddy Indian tribe. According to the report, which was posted to a Justice Department website, authorities have been unable to make any headway in the cases because suspects or witnesses had died or the law prohibited charges against people who had already been tried and acquitted.

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