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The DOJ is reopening the investigation of Emmett Till’s death. Will its findings mean anything?

The Trump administration’s handling of civil rights issues is prompting skepticism.

The Department of Justice announced that it is reopening its Emmett Till investigation due to “new information.”
The Department of Justice announced that it is reopening its Emmett Till investigation due to “new information.”
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

More than a decade after closing its investigation into the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teen whose brutal murder in 1955 served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, the Department of Justice says it is looking into the case once again.

On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the DOJ had reopened its investigation into Till’s murder, according to a letter sent to Congress earlier this year. The report noted that the DOJ had moved to open the investigation in light of “new information,” but did not specify what that information was. The DOJ declined Vox’s request for comment, noting that it does not discuss active investigations.

For some 60 years, Till’s death has served as one of the most prominent examples of the horrors lynching inflicted on black people in the decades after slavery. Historians have paid close attention to his case; the white men accused of his murder, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, confessed to murdering Till months after a jury acquitted them.

News of the reopened investigation — itself the product of a federal cold case act bearing Till’s name comes as some grapple with how to best acknowledge the racial demons of America’s past, and with how they continue to affect its present.

In recent years, activists, scholars, and journalists have asserted that Till’s case in particular remains relevant today, arguing that as America continues to deal with issues like racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration, the crimes of the Jim Crow era aren’t as distant as time suggests.

Till’s murder reignited the civil rights movement

In 1955, 14-year-old Till left Chicago to spend the summer with relatives near Money, Mississippi. A few days into that visit, Till went to a country store and encountered a white woman named Carolyn Bryant, who alleged that Till grabbed her and whistled at her. Days later, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam showed up at the home of Till’s relative, and kidnapped the boy. Till’s mutilated body — beaten, shot, and weighed down with a 74-pound cotton gin fanwas found in the Tallahatchie River soon after.

Till’s death attracted national and international attention when the boy’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded that his casket be left open during his funeral. Images of his body would further galvanize black activists across the country fighting against segregation and Jim Crow.

But Till’s death did not affect how a jury of all white men handled the trial of Bryant and Milam. Both men were acquitted in 1955 after a brief deliberation. Months later, they admitted to killing Till in a magazine article, but they could not be retried. Both men are now deceased.

In the decades since, Till’s death hasn’t faded from the public consciousness. Historians have continued to examine the case for insight into how Till died and whether other people were involved. The federal government opened an investigation into Till’s death in 2004, citing “renewed interest” in the case and new information gleaned from scholars and journalists. The investigation was later closed because the statute of limitations had expired; in 2007, a Mississippi jury declined to issue any new indictments in the case.

In 2017, after a decade of inaction on the case, things changed when historian Timothy Tyson published The Blood of Emmett Till. In that book, Tyson revealed that in 2007, Carolyn Bryant — now known as Carolyn Donham — admitted to lying about Till in 1955. She had initially been set to testify at the trial of Bryant and Milam, but her testimony was ruled inadmissible by the court. Even so, the allegations against Till have long been viewed as the catalyst for the boy’s murder.

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she told Tyson. Donham’s confession prompted Till’s family, as well as Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, to lobby Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen the investigation into his death. Tyson has since confirmed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation reached out to him about the conversation with Donham last year.

“I am glad to see the federal government following through on this request,” Rush said in a statement on Thursday. “This case is not only critically important for the role it played in sparking the Civil Rights movement, but so that Emmett and his family receive the justice that is owed to them.”

The announcement of the reopened investigation comes with some skepticism

News of the reopened investigation into Till’s lynching comes amid heightened media attention to racism. The past several weeks have seen a wave of noteworthy racial profiling incidents where white people have called police on people of color for innocuous actions like mowing a neighbor’s lawn and taking a nap in a college residence hall’s common room.

Racial justice activists continue to call attention to the ways police violence disproportionately affects black and brown communities. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation that would establish a federal anti-lynching law, as well as legislation that would mandate the release and review of government records relating to unsolved criminal civil rights cases.

But in the hours since the announcement, some have raised a different concern, one that focuses on the DOJ itself. The investigation is taking place under the Trump administration, which has been heavily criticized for its policy agenda and its effects on communities of color. Much of that criticism has been focused directly at the Justice Department, with critics noting that Jeff Sessions’s criminal justice agenda would increase incarceration at the federal level and disproportionately affect minorities.

“Sessions’s Justice Department has a credibility problem with sizable segments of the American public when it comes to proving his commitment to finding justice for people of color,” the Washington Post’s Eugene Scott notes, pointing to the attorney general’s move to roll back Obama-era police reforms.

Trump has attempted to use some criminal justice matters — such as the posthumous pardon of boxer Jack Johnson in May — to boost his profile with black voters. But even as those steps were made, the president has proven reluctant to address issues affecting black communities in the present, instead calling for the justice system to be more punitive and dismissing groups like Black Lives Matter.

The administration’s rhetoric and policies has prompted some to comment that the Till investigation, coming decades after the deaths of Bryant and Milam and overseen by an administration with a troubled civil rights record, is unlikely to result in justice. Even after the investigation ends, the president will face questions about how he plans to handle racial issues that are much more immediate.