The Murder of Emmett Till

Updated January 26, 2021 | Borgna Brunner

A "grotesque miscarriage of justice"

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Case Reopened

In August 1955, fourteen-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till visited relatives in Mississippi. At Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, a store owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, Till is said to have whistled at Mrs. Bryant. Several days later, on Aug. 28, Till was kidnapped, brutally beaten, shot, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, his mutilated corpse barely identifiable. Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, were arrested for the murder. The all-white jury in Sumner, Mississippi, took just over an hour to reach their verdict to acquit them. One juror said that they took a soda-pop break during the deliberations to stretch them out and "make it look good." With double-jeopardy protecting them from being retried, the two later boasted about the murder in a Look magazine interview. (See the Look story.)

Although it was long believed that Bryant and Milam acted alone (both are now deceased), new evidence—much of it provided by a recent documentary about the case by Keith Beauchamp—indicates that numerous other individuals may have been involved—and several of those implicated are still alive. In May 2004, the Justice Department, calling the 1955 prosecution a "grotesque miscarriage of justice," reopened the murder investigation.

In June 2005, the FBI exhumed Till's body and had an autopsy performed. Beauchamp commented, "I truly believe there's forensic evidence that could possibly link others who were involved. I'm hoping it will bring justice for the family and bring them closure."

Case Closed

Two years later, the FBI and Mississippi prosecutors closed the book on the Till case. The statute of limitations prevented federal charges from being filed, and state prosecutors determined they did not have sufficient evidence to go after other suspects. Some family members still hold out hope that Mrs. Bryant will be held accountable for her role in the horrific murder (witnesses claimed she was on the truck the night Till was kidnapped, though she denies any involvement), while other relatives say the lengthy investigation has allowed them to put the matter to rest. And some express hope for a different kind of justice: "Eventually, in the end, I think they're all going to pay for it," said Simeon Wright, Till's cousin.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice officially stated that they were reopening their investigation into the Emmett Till case in light of new evidence. 

Introduction: Justice Overdue

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