Emmett Till

Background

Emmett Till was an African-American boy from Chicago, Illinois, who was brutally murdered in 1955 at the age of 14 while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta region. The murder was allegedly sparked by Till’s conversing with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who kept a store in the area Till was visiting. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were indicted for the murder and tried in September, 1955, in Sumner, Misssissippi. The defense’s primary strategy was to argue that the body recovered by police could not be positively identified as Emmett Till. After a 67-minute deliberation, both were acquitted of capital murder. However, to add to the injustice of the case, both Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam admitted to the murders in a 1956 interview with Look magazine. After being acquitted, however, no charges could constitutionally be brought against them again.

On May 10, 2004, the Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the Till case for further investigation. In the years after the acquittal of Bryant and Milam, the case gained national notoriety and a number of researchers, documentary filmmakers, and the like began to suspect that other people not charged in the 1950s had been involved. Till’s body was exhumed on May 31, 2005, for identification and to recover additional evidence. In February, 2007, a Leflore County, Mississippi, grand jury, composed mostly of black citizens and convened by Joyce Chiles, a black prosecutor, failed to find sufficient evidence to bring charges against a number of other people, including Carolyn Bryant, whose involvement was suspected by researchers and documentarians who had looked into the case. The case remains open for investigation by the FBI to this day.

Following the reopening of the Till case, there was political movement to support re-examining many of the unsolved murders of the Civil Rights Era. To this end, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 was introduced in Congress in 2007. The act was introduced in the Senate by Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and in the house by Reps. Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) (retired) and John Lewis (D-GA). The act had over 50 bipartisan co-sponsors in Congress. It was passed by the House of Representatives on June 20, 2007, by a vote of 422 to 2; only Reps. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) voted against it. In the Senate, the act was passed by unanimous consent on September 24, 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush in October, 2008.

Legal Status

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were charged with the murder and tried in September 1955. Black men and white women were excluded from jury duty at the time. Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Moses Wright identified the accused as the men who kidnapped his nephew. Milam and Bryant were acquitted of the murder by a jury of twelve white men after they deliberated for about an hour. The acquittal is considered one of the greatest failures of the justice system in American history. After their acquittal on murder charges, a grand jury considered whether to indict Bryant and Milam on kidnapping charges. No indictment was returned and the men went free. On January 25, 1965, Look magazine interviewed Milam and Bryant, and Milam admitted that he and Bryant were responsible for Till’s death.

In 2004, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the Till matter. The Department turned the investigation over to Joyce Chiles, the Leflore County District Attorney. Chiles is African-American. A grand jury declined to indict Bryant’s wife. The case is now inactive.