Reopening the Emmett Till Case Is a Cynical Play


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The Justice Department’s investigation of the country’s most infamous lynching case won’t implicate a society full of accomplices.

A photo of Emmett Till is seen on his grave marker Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, in Alsip, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

JACKSON, Miss.—If there is a fight to be had for the future of America, it will be waged in the Delta. The great alluvial plain to the west and north of here, stretching from Vicksburg on up to Memphis, and expanding out like a fan from the mighty Mississippi River, is a storied home to movement, and is the proving ground of the laws and legends that make the country what it is today. Past the soybean farms and pine stands, the cotton plantations and catfish ponds, there’s a political significance to this agricultural expanse. The Mississippi Delta is a reservoir of demographic strength—the blackest part of the blackest state in the country. But it is also one of the poorest places in America, and a region where the struggle for basic human rights is not yet settled.

At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, it is made clear just how the Mississippi of before begat the Mississippi of today. The state was built on ethnic cleansing, land theft, and terror; and it was maintained even after slavery through terrorism. It’s because of the blackness of the region that the version of Jim Crow implemented there was the zenith—or the nadir—of the form, a roiling campaign of theft and intimidation that over the course of a century watered the fertile soil of the Delta with somewhere near 600 lynchings. There at the museum, the names of Mississippi martyrs like Medgar Evers and Reverend George Lee are raised in honor. Chief among them is Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose lynching proved a horror too far.

I was touring the museum, exiting an exhibit on the life and assassination of Evers, the former state NAACP field secretary, when I received a curious news alert. The Associated Press reported that the Department of Justice had announced it was reopening its investigation into the killing of Till, whose mutilated body was discovered by boys fishing in the Tallahatchie River in 1955. According to the news story, the DOJ announced its intentions in a report from March 2018 that’s just recently been revealed. The move was reportedly sparked by a revelation in The Blood of Emmett Till, a 2017 book by historian Timothy B. Tyson, that the accusation that had allegedly prompted Till’s lynching was false. Specifically, Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to Tyson that her claim, which she made to her then-husband Roy Bryant and his brother J.W. Milam, that Till had sexually harassed her was a lie…

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