Even as the U.S. Department of Justice was announcing a fresh look at unsolved civil-rights-era killings around the South, a Mississippi...
Even as the U.S. Department of Justice was announcing a fresh look at unsolved civil-rights-era killings around the South, a Mississippi Delta prosecutor was closing the books on perhaps the most notorious of those cold cases: the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, 14.
To some, the Leflore County grand jury’s decision not to return an indictment in the case after a three-year federal investigation was a sign not much had changed in Mississippi in the past 52 years.
But others, including the prosecutor, thought it showed the opposite: a maturing of racial justice in the region.
“It would have been very easy for that grand jury to have returned a true bill based solely on emotion and the rage they felt. And I commend them for not doing that,” says Joyce Chiles, the black district attorney who directed the case in which the grand jury declined to charge Carolyn Bryant Donham, 73, the object of Till’s infamous wolf whistle.
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If the grand jurors had acted on the basis of hate, not evidence, Chiles says, that would have been more like the Jim Crow justice of 1955.
“I didn’t feel good toward her; I still don’t feel good toward her,” says Chiles, who grew up on a plantation not far from where Till’s bloated, ravaged body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. But as the prosecutor who laid out the file for the grand jury, she had to acknowledge the evidence to indict was not there.
“We are justice seekers and not head hunters,” Chiles says. “And if I were to follow the law and the evidence as it was presented, I would have had to have returned a no-bill.”
Since 1989, officials in Mississippi and six other states had won convictions in nearly 24 civil-rights-era cases that most had considered stone cold. The decision in the Till case was revealed Tuesday, the same day U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the reopening of about a dozen cold cases; he did not reveal which cases they are.
To many, Till was the “sacrificial lamb” of the civil-rights movement, so when federal officials reopened the case in 2004, his family and others had high hopes someone would be made to pay for killing the boy whose defiled, river-ravaged face helped galvanize mass opposition to Southern segregation.
Emmett Till’s tragic visit
In August 1955, Till left Chicago to spend the summer with his great-uncle Mose “Preacher” Wright in the town of Money.
Late that month, Till and some other kids went to the Bryant Grocery & Meat Market to buy candy and pink-iced cookies. Simeon Wright and his cousin had just stepped outside when Till let out that whistle.
Wright was sharing a bed with Till two nights later when a car pulled up outside the family’s house. Half-brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam appeared with flashlights and pistols and said they’d come to see “the boy who had done all the talking.”
The men ordered Till to dress and led him outside. Mose Wright would later testify he heard a light voice from inside the vehicle, like that of a woman, say they had the right one.
Three days after Till’s disappearance, his body was found in the Tallahatchie, a gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His left eye was missing, as were most of his teeth; his nose was crushed, and there was a hole in his right temple.
Up to 100,000 people filed past Till’s open casket during a four-day public viewing in Chicago. A graphic photo of his mangled face in Jet magazine helped stoke the nation’s outrage and fuel the civil-rights movement.
In 1955, an all-white Tallahatchie County jury took 67 minutes to acquit Bryant and Milam of killing the 14-year-old for whistling at a white woman.
The details of Till’s gruesome lynching and the farcical trial were ringing in Rosa Parks’ ears on Dec. 1, 1955, when she defied Southern custom by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger.
Even after Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing in a 1956 interview with Look magazine, the federal government failed to move. The two died without ever seeing the inside of a prison cell, and many thought that was the end.
The case is reopened
The case was reopened in 2004, due in large part to the efforts of New York filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.
The filmmaker compiled a list of at least 14 people — black and white — he believed had some role in the kidnapping, beating and slaying. He went to the authorities with the names of five people who were still alive, including the former Mrs. Bryant.
During the original trial, the defense suggested that the body buried in Chicago was not even that of Till. To put those rumors to rest, federal officials exhumed the body in 2005 and confirmed it was Till’s.
The FBI amassed an 8,000-page file during its investigation but determined that the statutes of limitations had run out on all possible federal crimes. The agency turned the file over to Chiles, with a recommendation she take a close look at Donham.
Roy Bryant denied at the time that his wife came along on the abduction, and no one has come forward who claims to have seen her at the Wright home.
Last month, Chiles presented the case to grand jurors in Leflore County, where a grand jury in 1956 failed to indict Bryant and Milam for kidnapping, despite their confessions to the magazine. The new, racially-mixed grand jury was to consider a charge of manslaughter.
Simeon Wright was devastated by the panel’s decision but not surprised. “They came up with this 50 years ago,” Wright, 64, says from his home in Chicago. “Some of the people haven’t changed from 50 years ago. Same attitude. The evidence speaks for itself.”
Beauchamp was outraged.
“I strongly believe that we should have gotten an indictment in that case,” he says.
But journalist and author Juan Williams is not convinced. “You have a mostly black [grand] jury, a black prosecutor. I mean, I don’t know what he wants,” Williams says. “It’s not as if this has been a whitewash by any means.”
Williams, author of “Eyes on the Prize” and other works on the civil-rights movement, agrees with Chiles that bringing a weak case against Donham would have been just another injustice.
“I think the two guilty parties are dead,” says Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public Radio. “You can’t go back and revise history to your liking because you now live in a more enlightened era.”