Exploring the many forms of justice for Emmett Till nearly 70 years after his murder
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Over the course of about a week in 1955, “Emmett Till” went from being the name of an ordinary child to an anti-lynching cri de coeur.
Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, early on August 28, snatched Till from his great-uncle Mose Wright’s home near Money, Mississippi, set off by the spurious accusation that the Black 14-year-old had assaulted a White woman, Bryant’s then-wife, Carolyn Bryant (later Bryant Donham). The men beat Till, put a bullet in his head, tied a 75-pound cotton gin to his neck and threw him into the Tallahatchie River.
The first week of September, Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, held a funeral at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, in Chicago. Propelled by grief and outrage, she insisted on an open-casket funeral so that visitors could see the body, mangled beyond recognition. She wanted to bring greater visibility to the horrors of White supremacy, to move people to battle against it. And she succeeded: Her son’s killing energized the Black freedom struggle. Till-Mobley spent the rest of her life refusing to allow the world to ignore what had happened to her boy.
Till’s presence still resonates throughout society. Chinonye Chukwu’s new film, “Till,” which paints a picture of the racial equality activism Till-Mobley embraced after her son’s death, debuts on Friday. In June, members of Till’s family found new evidence in the case – an unserved arrest warrant for Bryant, Milam and Donham. And, in March, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, making lynching a federal hate crime. Together, these events give us an opportunity to revisit an important question: What might justice for the slain teenager look like today, nearly 70 years after an all-White jury acquitted Bryant and Milam?
We can answer that question in a variety of ways, scholars and advocates say, because justice can take many different forms.
As Keisha N. Blain, a professor of history and Africana studies at Brown University, told CNN, “I always think about redress, this notion of justice – whether that’s legal justice and steps to help Till’s surviving relatives, or justice to Till’s memory and responses to urge people to consider how to stop present-day racial violence.”
In some ways, securing legal justice for Till seems increasingly beyond reach.
In December, the US Department of Justice closed its investigation into the 1955 murder. Federal officials had reopened the case in July 2018, prompted by “new information.”
At the time, the department declined to elaborate any further. But its actions followed calls to reopen the case sparked by the release of Timothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett of Till,” in which Donham appears to recant the allegation that would prove to be the 14-year-old’s death sentence.
The department closed the probe after it concluded that it couldn’t prove that Donham had lied about Till. She denied retracting her testimony when federal investigators spoke with her.
“We cannot stop even though we don’t feel that we got justice,” Ollie Gordon, one of Till’s cousins, told CNN in December.
It’s unclear whether the unserved arrest warrant, found in June by a five-member search group led by Till’s family, will meaningfully affect the case.
Dated August 29, 1955, the warrant charges Bryant, Milam and Donham with kidnapping and orders their arrest. Milam died in 1980 and Bryant 14 years later; Donham is still alive.
In July, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the contents of Donham’s 99-page unpublished draft memoir, which generated new questions about Till’s lynching due to conflicting statements she made at the time.
Till’s relatives hope that the warrant will lead to her arrest, given that the document hasn’t expired.
“Justice has to be served,” Deborah Watts, Till’s cousin, told CNN earlier this year. “Emmett led us to it. I know that in my heart.”
The family is exploring what can be done now, with the warrant in hand.
“We thought of things like citizen’s arrest,” Watts said. “If the authorities aren’t going to do this, what can we do?”
Her daughter, Terri Watts, described the moment as bittersweet.
“I definitely want to see it through. But it has been a tremendous amount of trauma. I still feel like the weight is on our shoulders. We found the new evidence, and so we just want justice served,” she said.
Bryant and Milam eventually admitted to murdering Till in a 1956 interview with Look magazine archived by PBS.
Yet legal justice is only one kind of redress.
We shouldn’t overlook the justice the teenager received in terms of the way his murder gave fuel to the mid-century civil rights movement, according to Amy Wood, a professor of history at Illinois State University.
“It was a really important case in part for that reason,” Wood told CNN. “We don’t want to downplay the activism of the past. We don’t want to look at the people who risked their lives or were killed and suggest that their struggles were in vain.”
She mentioned Amzie Moore, an activist who challenged the racial order in Mississippi. He claimed in an interview in the 1970s that Till’s killing was the “best-advertised lynching” he’d ever heard of and that it was the start of the movement in the state.
“Till’s murder sent shock waves around the country,” Wood said. “And there was so much national attention paid to it because of his age, because of the brutality of his death – and because of what his mother did in publicizing it. That was incredibly important work.”
The lynching helped movement leaders push through legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which begat the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, among other things.
Put differently, what people did with the child’s death was significant.
“There wasn’t just a crucifixion. There was a resurrection – of the freedom dreams of Reconstruction,” Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, told CNN. “Till’s mother was politically savvy and set out to strike a blow against the country’s racial caste system. She enlisted Black Chicago – the labor unions, the press, the churches, the NAACP – and helped create an infrastructure for the modern civil rights movement.”
Further, we can locate some degree of justice in our pop-cultural preservation of Till’s memory. Here, Chukwu’s ferociously touching new movie can play a vital role.
The film, which respects the family’s dignity without sacrificing artistry (Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who witnessed the kidnapping, consulted on the project until his passing in 2017), does two things at once. It talks about Till, of course, but it also charts his mother’s indefatigable efforts to shine a light on the dangers of racial violence.
According to Blain, these two pieces of the story are crucial.
“I teach courses on the civil rights movement. And as shocking as it might sound, there are students who come to the course who’ve never heard of the case. That’s interesting because the general notion is that all people know about the case. But the only way people will know about the case is if we talk about the case,” Blain said.
“What’s beautiful about this movie and similar efforts is that we do justice to the memory hopefully by presenting accurate portrayals of Till and his mother’s response to his death,” Blain added. “And if we keep doing that, I hope that in our lifetime we will actually get to a place where people, in fact, know who Emmett Till was.”
Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, echoed some of Blain’s sentiments, and specifically offered lessons on how to be smart about remembering.
“To me, justice would look in part like creating a landscape that reckons honestly with history, and that means stepping away from the iconography that reinforces narratives of racial hierarchy and White supremacy,” he told CNN. “We have a project where we’re trying to put up markers at every lynching site in the US. We’ve done some in Mississippi. It’d be great for the state and other states to take this on as a priority project.”
He continued, “If you’re really going to do something that feels like justice, you’re going to have to do things that are bigger and bolder than you’ve done before.”
Notably, Wood, the author of the 2009 book, “Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940,” underscored how a film such as “Till” can become a powerful vehicle to examine tragedy and trauma.
“Trauma, in some ways, is unrepresentable. Trauma is something so deeply personal and psychological and emotional. How do you represent that and convey that so that other people can bear witness?” Wood said. “I think that photographs have a particular ability to do that. I think that movies do, too. They provide visual narratives that allow people to feel along with the characters.”
And not only feel – but mobilize.
“With a film, you’re attempting to inform audiences about what happened. And I believe that it’s not just for information’s sake. It’s also to get them to act,” Blain said. “Till’s no longer here. His mother’s no longer here. But he has surviving relatives. At least in the case of Donham, they’ve been demanding legal justice. We’ve failed them when it comes to that matter. But there are other responses that could happen, if only to get people to think about ways to stop racial violence.”
It’s a tall order, she said, but it’s one potential outcome of the movie.
In other words, knowledge of the past won’t bring justice to Till. But it could bring justice to people in the present – to a country that still destroys young Black lives.