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July 12, 2018 6:54 PM   Subscribe

Justice Department reopens Emmett Till's murder case

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago resident, was visiting family in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched in 1955. The murder was said to be in retribution for the black teenager's alleged sexual harassment of a white woman named Carolyn Bryant (now Carolyn Donham). Her then-husband, Roy Bryant, and her brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were charged with the murder but swiftly acquitted. Once the men were protected by the Fifth Amendment's double jeopardy clause, they confessed their guilt and sold their story to Look Magazine for $4,000.

Till was abducted, and found days later in the Tallahatchie River, his face so mutilated that he could only be positively identified by his great-uncle, Mose Wright, from an heirloom ring he wore. Wright, who had witnessed the abduction, took the stand at Bryant and Milam's September 1955 trial, identifying the men as Till's abductors and murderers; two months later, Wright testified again, at the grand jury hearing for the kidnapping case. The defense claimed that the mutilated body... was not that of Emmett Till. In 2005, DNA testing confirmed that it was.

During the five-day murder trial, Carolyn Bryant testified under oath that Till had assaulted her in her family's grocery store. In last year's The Blood of Emmett Till, historian Timothy B. Tyson interviewed Donham, who admitted to perjuring herself. A witness, Till's cousin Simeon Wright, testified that Till, after making his purchase, had whistled at Bryant outside of the store.

At the close of the murder trial, the all-white jury took approximately 66 minutes to reach its decision; one juror said the verdict would have been delivered sooner, if they hadn’t "stopped to drink pop" to delay and "make it look good." In November, despite Bryant own admission of having abducted Till, another all-white jury declined to indict either man.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket at her son's funeral. The original casket is in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recently, the photographs of Till's mutilated body, originally published by Jet magazine, were the models for Dana Schutz's controversial 2016 painting Open Casket.

The investigation into Emmett Louis Till's murder was previously reopened in 2004, and closed again in 2007. J.W. Milam died in 1980, and Roy Bryant died in 1994. Authorities say the current investigative proceedings are based on new, confidential information.

Previously.
posted by Iris Gambol (33 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by supermedusa at 7:56 PM on July 12


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I'm not sure what justice for Emmett and his family looks like now, in 2018, after his murderers went free and lived full lives and passed on far more peacefully than they had any right to. And I'm not sure a DOJ run by a white supremacist is even capable of delivering justice in a case like this. But I'll watch and wait and hope for the best.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 8:03 PM on July 12 [42 favorites]


Justice delayed this long is inevitably justice denied.

At this point it's far too late to say "hey, look, we're taking this as seriously as we should have back then so all is good.." as if it ever could work that way. Till's case is, and always will be, a blemish on the nation, a scar to remind us that some kinds of damage leave a mark forever.

Meanwhile there are a million opportunities to correct injustices that are happening right fucking now. Maybe we should instead devote resources to those issues rather than trying to whitewash our historical failures so we can feel better about them.

[on edit: I'm not opposed to finding out more about what happened, and if there is new information let it be part of the historical record. But I've already read a number of headlines today along the lines of "Emmett Till May Get Justice at Last". No. No he won't. That ship sailed long ago.]
posted by Nerd of the North at 8:11 PM on July 12 [53 favorites]


forgive my cynicism but under THIS justice department they're just as likely to issue an apology to the families of the murderers for having had to endure a trial at all.
posted by wibari at 8:59 PM on July 12 [37 favorites]


I tend to agree that this is a meaningless gesture to provide cover for an administration that badly needs (politically) to look like they care about racial injustice without, you know, actually holding anyone accountable or creating any real consequences. But hey, if it provides any peace to Till’s surviving relatives, then great I’m all for it.

But there’s literally no question at all about what happened and who was guilty and the real legacy is the out in the open plain black and white knowledge that the American justice system cares fuck all about people of color. If the point of this exercise is to challenge *that* little nugget of truth, I can think of literally ten thousand more effective ways to do so than to convict two dumb racists in their graves for something they fucking bragged about doing publicly. Like, what weak minded idiot fool feels better that this case being reopened means it’s a brand new day in race relations?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:02 PM on July 12 [9 favorites]


Timothy B. Tyson:

I think that it's a cynical political charade and utter hypocrisy for the Justice Department of Jeff Beauregard Sessions and Donald Trump to feign caring about a black child murdered in 1955 when they're holding children of color in cages, when they can't find a moral distinction between the Nazis and those who demonstrate against them, when Jeff Sessions has spent his whole career supporting restrictions on voting rights. And I think it is rich with irony.

https://www.npr.org/2018/07/12/628546616/justice-department-reopens-investigation-into-1955-lynching-of-emmett-till
posted by The Lamplighter at 9:40 PM on July 12 [33 favorites]


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But I have mixed feelings about this. Like, I don't know. Black kids like Tamir and Trayvon and Michael are still getting lynched out here and the people responsible move on, usually with accolades and defenses and even financial support, just like they did all those years ago. Much more of an outcry and more rallies to justice, but other than a few firings and suspensions, who's sitting in jail? Their metaphorical fathers and grandfathers didn't. Things haven't changed much in that regard, but I'm trying to be hopeful.

Thank you, Iris, for such a detailed and interesting post. I appreciate seeing this here.
posted by Freeze Peach at 9:42 PM on July 12 [7 favorites]


forgive my cynicism but under THIS justice department they're just as likely to issue an apology to the families of the murderers for having had to endure a trial at all.
I mean, did they get to finish their pop? If you drink that stuff too fast you can get gassy.

posted by kirkaracha at 9:54 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


And I'm not sure a DOJ run by a white supremacist is even capable of delivering justice in a case like this.

Yeah, I am just kind of like...under THIS justice department?
posted by corb at 10:21 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I was surprised that the NBC Nightly News this evening showed one of the full-face post-mortem photos. Sixty-three years late.

I've been trying to remember if I've ever seen a dead body on cable news before. It seems like I must have... even just in a clip from a Ken Burns documentary for a historical or promotional segment on PBS Newshour or something... but I recall that seeing bodies which had been left in the street in New Orleans after Katrina, in archived Democracy Now! coverage, was startling.
posted by XMLicious at 10:29 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Made the post because today's Fox News headline for this investigation downgraded this child's murder to a killing.
While I deliberately didn't title the FPP Justice for Emmett, because there never will be, I am hoping Carolyn Donham gets charged.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:49 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


They're reaching back to Emmet Till because when he was murdered, the vast majority of white Southerners were Democrats, and you can expect DOJ and Trump to point that up.

All those people didn't go Republican until after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The cynicism of this investigation would be breathtaking under any previous administration, but it's unremarkable for this one.
posted by jamjam at 12:05 AM on July 13 [16 favorites]


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posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:20 AM on July 13


The photo was included in Eyes on the Prize, which originally aired on PBS in 1987.
posted by brujita at 1:07 AM on July 13


This is the same as the Jack Johnson pardon: “See, we don’t hate black people! As long as they’re already long dead and it doesn’t inconvenience any white people, because let’s face it, a white woman in her 80s ain’t going to jail for a minute.
posted by Etrigan at 4:19 AM on July 13 [8 favorites]


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posted by bile and syntax at 4:39 AM on July 13


I really worry that this is just a bid by an actively aggressively racist administration to destroy a touchstone of the civil rights movement.

Like if someone told me that Trump or Sessions toured the Smithsonian, saw Till's casket, and asked out loud how they could go about removing it and using it as kindling? And that days later this case was reopened? I would believe it.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 5:05 AM on July 13 [9 favorites]


Yeah, I don't trust anything about this administration any more than you do. But if there's actual new evidence (what is that evidence? any clues?), what are you going to do, ignore the evidence? And let all the racists and conspiracy idiots decide for themselves what new truth the government must be covering up?

As it stands, the case is an excellent schoolbook example of what racism and lynching in America look like. To fight the deniers, (re)establish the latest evidence in court and name all the names you can: This is the face of the woman upon whose lies this whole thing was based. These are the faces of the men who beat and shot the boy to death. This is the face of the boy his mother had to cry over. These are the faces of the jurors that set the murderers free. These are the words and the smiles and the laughs of the murderers after they knew they were safe from further prosecution. This is the confession of the woman who started the whole thing. Etc. Getting the case back in the news is good.

But I'd be a lot more comfortable if this were the work of any other Justice Department. Coming from the Sessions department, it smells like a skeevy PR move in the works ("See, we aren't racists! How could we be racists?") or even an attempt to somehow flip the story ("See, these terrified, powerless black people did not stop the murder, therefore they are as guilty as the armed white men who murdered the boy! Not a race crime!").
posted by pracowity at 5:54 AM on July 13 [4 favorites]


I really worry that this is just a bid by an actively aggressively racist administration to destroy a touchstone of the civil rights movement.

I'd be a lot more comfortable if this were the work of any other Justice Department. Coming from the Sessions department, it smells like a skeevy PR move in the works ("See, we aren't racists! How could we be racists?") or even an attempt to somehow flip the story ("See, these terrified, powerless black people did not stop the murder, therefore they are as guilty as the armed white men who murdered the boy! Not a race crime!").

Yeah, the first thought that went through my mind was "How are they going to use this as a weapon against the civil rights movement?" Lord knows that there are plenty of racist idiots out there that believe in racist idiocy like "Southern honor culture" and preserving the memory of racist traitors and slavers because they believe in Lost Cause revisionism. It's not hard to imagine the DOJ basically reinventing the story as a black boy desecrating the virtue of a delicate flower of white femininity, which resulted in a regrettable (but of course understandable) "over-reaction" from concerned white men. From there they can tie it to the civil rights movement at large ("don't forget, MLK was a womanizer!"), and get their friends at the textbook companies to literally rewrite the history, which will be gleefully endorsed by Betsy DeVos. Meanwhile, the "in these days of #MeToo, it's amazingly hypocritical that the left is now choosing to ignore the words of a woman..." articles and White House press releases would pretty much write themselves. It's not as if Bari Weiss and Katie Roiphe and their ilk haven't been chomping at the bit to write them already.

I'd really like to believe there's actual evidence that brings actual justice, but no one's lost money underestimating how ruthlessly evil the bigotry of conservatives can be, especially recently.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:24 AM on July 13 [8 favorites]


And I'm not sure a DOJ run by a white supremacist is even capable of delivering justice in a case like this.

DOJ is racist for not re-opening the Till case.
DOJ is also racist for opening the Till case.

Ya can't have it both ways. Why not just let the case pan out before the outrage?
posted by lstanley at 6:31 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


the American justice system cares fuck all about people of color

The system doesn't like anyone who's not "them". Starts with money and having a bar card and then moves to not male. Once the recordings from courtrooms are able to be given to researchers the resulting application of voice recognition will show the stastical biases of the justice system decision makers. Such a courtroom corpus will be resisted to the last, just like the COMPASS ruling prevented the soucre code from being shown as to how the just-us brand of sausage is made.

Take heart tho:

Till had an effect - the civil rights legislation of the later 60's.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:08 AM on July 13


Why not just let the case pan out before the outrage?

You're right, MetaFilter shouldn't be using its awesome legal and constitutional powers to interfere in the re-opening of nope I can't even bother finishing this sentence with anything but a gigantic eye roll.

You don't like the outrage? You wish we were more polite? Not a lot of good that's done us so far. So yeah, I'm gonna be a little fucking worried about how this Justice Department, led by this white supremacist, is going to handle this extremely sensitive topic, because it hasn't panned out too damn well for all the other ones over the last eighteen months.
posted by Etrigan at 7:45 AM on July 13 [30 favorites]


Ya can't have it both ways. Why not just let the case pan out before the outrage?

Fuck that, it is outrageous. They get no benefit of the doubt. They don't get to relitigate the civil rights movement and Emmett Till's murder to make this racist administration look better. It's a goddamned farce and I won't play along.
posted by Space Kitty at 7:49 AM on July 13 [18 favorites]


the "in these days of #MeToo, it's amazingly hypocritical that the left is now choosing to ignore the words of a woman.

Actually I maybe just figured it out. MeToo is a real problem for this administration and a bunch of its minions right? I bet they’re going to use people’s outrage about the Donham testimony to try to shift the Justice Department to preferring criminal charges for women who they say are “lying” about sexual harassment.
posted by corb at 8:16 AM on July 13 [8 favorites]


Not to derail things, but how in the holy hell are you still protected by double jeopardy after you flat out admit your guilt after the fact?!
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 8:23 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


But if there's actual new evidence (what is that evidence? any clues?)

pracowity, I think Donham's admission is the new evidence.

... how in the holy hell are you still protected by double jeopardy after you flat out admit your guilt after the fact?!

SonInLawOfSam, here are recent examples; searching 'post-acquittal confession' will find more.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:38 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


If there's more to this story than what's already well known, it deserves to see the light of day. But it's hard to separate the action from the actors here -- hard to see this investigation without thinking about who is running the DOJ these days.
posted by HiddenInput at 8:50 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


The DOJ does not have infinite resources. They devoting people and time and energy to a long past case rather than the many possible present things they could focus on which would have far more beneficial effects for minorities. Just a few examples off the top of my head: police violence; the lack of public defenders and the poor quality of defense offered; obstructions to voting. Of course we know why they're not addressing those.
posted by kokaku at 9:25 AM on July 13 [12 favorites]


There were some hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico in the 1950s which the Trump Administration's FEMA could repair damage from too—probably still a couple of bald hilltops somewhere trees could be replanted, especially in the presently-depopulated areas where luxury home and island resort developers have bought up cheap land and broken ground on projects. But of course we'd need to reserve judgment on whether the overall J20/2017-to-present response to disaster recovery in PR is racist until we see what happens in all theoretical eventualities.
posted by XMLicious at 9:29 AM on July 13 [6 favorites]


DOJ is racist for not re-opening the Till case.
DOJ is also racist for opening the Till case.

Ya can't have it both ways. Why not just let the case pan out before the outrage?


Correction:
DOJ is racist for the way they dealt with the Till case in the past.
DOJ is racist for the way they're addressing it now.

It is not "open/close this case" that makes them racist.

how in the holy hell are you still protected by double jeopardy after you flat out admit your guilt after the fact?!

Because, as odious as it is in this case, we are better off in a world where prosecutors don't keep trying to convict someone until it works. (Even if they confess - maybe they're lying to get famous.) Removing double jeopardy would hurt a lot more marginalized people than it would the occasional white male braggart.

In a fair and sensible world, the family of the survivor would be able to sue the hell out of the people who confessed, and possibly sue the county or state for failing to turn up the relevant evidence that would've won a conviction. Nobody would wind up in jail as a result, but the guilty could wind up giving all their wealth to the victims. However, the poor and not-well-educated don't have much access to civil suits, and there was certainly nobody willing to tell Till's family that they had the right to sue his killers (and maybe the state) if they did so within a few years.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:25 AM on July 13 [8 favorites]


A thought that keeps returning to me is that these people who react to Birtherism or Pizzagate with credence, and nod along to the idea that climate change is a "Chinese hoax", have to believe that false evidence in support of these conspiracies is continuously manufactured in absolutely massive quantities and saturates every source of information, even acceptable ones like Fox News to some degree.

People who can believe that should be really, really concerned by the massive racial disparities in arrests, charging, conviction, and sentencing that have always existed in United States. Like if scientific evidence which shows that the Arctic and Antarctica are melting at drastically accelerated rates in the 21st century can be falsified and come out of every scientific instrument and scientific establishment in every country in the world, or if the Obama Administration didn't really assassinate Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda PR wing and his widows and the government of Pakistan and every involved element of the U.S. military can be participating together in a conspiracy to conceal that fact by talking as if he's dead, then it should not be much of a stretch to seriously consider that racists are manufacturing evidence on a fraction of that scale and tilting the outcomes of our "justice system" so that things go poorly for non-white people at rates several hundred percent worse than even simple statistical models extrapolated from demographics would predict.

I mean manufacturing of evidence is hardly necessary to explain the phenomenon of disparate outcomes in its entirety: good old-fashioned racial bias, both conscious and unconscious, prejudicing individual decisions and systemic and institutional racism are quite adequate, without even getting into the fact that this is part of—concretely part of, not just notionally part of, because there are specific individuals connecting the present to the past like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and Donald Trump—part of a monolithic continuum stretching back to slavery and Jim Crow and the many American politicians of the early 20th century and before who openly called themselves white supremacists and intended that a system would endure to protect Till's murderers and weigh down non-whites for the rest of American history. But enthusiasm for conspiracy theories ought to make attributing outcomes to racism a virtually universal refrain regardless of where interlocutors are on the political spectrum every time a PoC dies in police custody or is executed or imprisoned or even just fined.

Yet we don't see that, because racism and white supremacy and pretending racism and white supremacy don't exist are corollaries of each other, like mutualism in symbiotes.

If you're ready to suggest that the DOJ isn't even racist, rather than asking how racist the DOJ of any given era is and which actions and institutional practices are doing the most to support racism and white supremacy, you are openly participating in the racism and the white supremacy.
posted by XMLicious at 1:02 PM on July 13 [3 favorites]


In a fair and sensible world, the family of the survivor would be able to sue the hell out of the people who confessed, and possibly sue the county or state for failing to turn up the relevant evidence that would've won a conviction.

The problem is, especially if you're trying to address racial equity, you don't actually want a system in place that would incentivize prosecutors to go as hard as they can on every possible suspect for a crime, for reasons along the lines as the first part of your statement. It's much more likely to be used against people who don't have a ton of ability to fight back.

It's kind of like how I thought that prosecutors should have to pay back people's legal fees when they had cases where the people were so innocent they were willing to dismiss the cases, until someone patiently explained to me it would just result in prosecutors being less willing to dismiss cases in the first place.
posted by corb at 7:05 PM on July 13 [4 favorites]


Fuck that, it is outrageous. They get no benefit of the doubt. They don't get to relitigate the civil rights movement and Emmett Till's murder to make this racist administration look better. It's a goddamned farce and I won't play along.

Particularly when the same administration is using cost to argue against both reuniting children with their parents after abducting them and the Mueller investigation into Republican collusion on russian electoral interference.
posted by srboisvert at 9:24 AM on July 14 [2 favorites]


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