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Justice Department Reopens Investigation Into 1955 Lynching Of Emmett Till


The Justice Department is reopening its investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till based on the discovery of what it calls new information. Till was just 14 years old visiting family in Mississippi when a white woman said he had made crude sexual advances toward her. He was kidnapped from his bed at night, beaten and shot in the head. His mutilated body was found days later in a river. His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket because she wanted the world to witness exactly what the attackers had done to her son.


MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY: I don't want his death to be a vain thing. If it can further the cause of freedom, then I will say that he died a hero.

CHANG: The two white men who were tried in 1955 for Till's murder were acquitted, and both of them are now dead. Last year in his book "The Blood Of Emmett Till," researcher Timothy Tyson disclosed that the white woman who accused Till had told him that her story was not true. He joins us now from Durham, N.C. Welcome.

TIMOTHY TYSON: Glad to be here.

CHANG: So can we first step back for a moment? And just give us some historical context. How did Emmett Till's murder helped galvanize the civil rights movement?

TYSON: Mamie Bradley, Emmett's mother, got his body back to Chicago and had an open-casket funeral. Somewhere between a hundred thousand and 250,000 people viewed the body in the course of several days. She then harnessed the power of black Chicago - the NAACP, The Chicago Defender, the Johnson Publishing Company, which was Jet and Ebony and half a dozen other magazines - all of these institutions with national reach. She inspires a movement that elevated Martin Luther King to world historical status, passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights - that national infrastructure was built by the Till case.

CHANG: Now, many people including Emmett Till's family hoped that your book would lead to reopening the investigation into his murder because you had the chance to speak with Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who had accused Till of harassing her. Can you just describe how she remembers this very brief encounter between Emmett Till and her?

TYSON: She said her testimony in court of him grabbing her and making sexual advances to her - that part's not true. I said, well, what is true? And she said, to be perfectly honest, I don't remember. You tell these stories over and over until they seem true. Then she said, nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.

CHANG: What do you make of the Department of Justice reopening this investigation?

TYSON: I think that it's a cynical political charade and utter hypocrisy for the Justice Department of Jeff Beauregard Sessions and Donald Trump to feign caring about a black child murdered in 1955 when they're holding children of color in cages, when they can't find a moral distinction between the Nazis and those who demonstrate against them, when Jeff Sessions has spent his whole career supporting restrictions on voting rights. And I think it is rich with irony.

CHANG: Even if no one is prosecuted ultimately, is there value in just correcting the record, in confirming that the allegations were false?

TYSON: Well, I think that's been done. That's in the blood of Emmett Till. You know, the FBI has never really closed this case, and there's a 500-page report of the FBI's findings from 1955 certainly on - into the 1990s. Nobody - to me, the fact that Carolyn Bryant lied in court is not the morning news. Nobody believed she was telling the truth.

CHANG: That's Timothy Tyson, author of "The Blood Of Emmett Till." Thanks very much for joining us.

TYSON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.