Justice Department Officially Closes Emmett Till Investigation Without Bringing Justice

Authorities will not press charges after reviewing a second piece of key testimony from the 1955 murder

Emmett Till, a young boy in a suit and tie, smiles next to his mother, who wears a dress and has her hand on his shoulder
Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till-Mobley, ca. 1953-1955 Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / Gift of the Mamie Till Mobley family

Officials have closed an investigation into the 1955 abduction and murder of Emmett Till and will not pursue any charges, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division and the U.S. attorney’s office for the northern district of Mississippi announced last week.

The news brings an anticlimactic end to new inquiries into one of the most infamous lynchings in American history. Till’s 1955 murder, and the subsequent acquittal of his attackers, shocked the nation and sparked the nascent civil rights movement.

In August of that year, Till, just 14 at the time, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, from his hometown of Chicago when he was accused of harassing a white woman, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, in her family’s grocery store. Bryant would later lie and claim that Till grabbed her and flirted with her. Eyewitness testimony indicates that he simply whistled at her, Abby Callard reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2009.

In the middle of the night on August 28, two armed white men—Carolyn’s future husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam—abducted Till from his bed at gunpoint. The men tortured and beat the teenager for hours before killing him and throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River, where it was recovered three days later.

State officials charged Milam and Bryant with murder, but the pair were acquitted by an all-white jury. The men confessed to the crime in a paid article for Look magazine just months later, but double jeopardy laws prevented them from being tried again, as Nicole Chavez reports for CNN. Milam died in 1980 and Bryant died in 1994.

News of the horrific hate crime and the jury’s acquittal outraged many across the country, report Audra D. S. Burch and Tariro Mzezewa for the New York Times. Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, insisted on displaying her son’s mutilated body in an open casket at his funeral on the South Side of Chicago, which drew more than 100,000 mourners. She also gave permission for photos to be published in Jet magazine—noting, “let the people see what they did to my boy”—which drew national attention to his murder. (His casket, and copies of the Jet magazine, are on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

A black and white photograph of Mamie Till-Mobley, a woman in a black dress and hat, crying as she looks into her son's open casket, which is not visible
Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, at his funeral in 1955. Public Domain / Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / Gift of Lauren and Michael Lee

In recent decades, authorities have made some attempts to bring legal justice to Till’s family members. The DOJ reopened the case under its Cold Case Initiative in 2004 but concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to bring federal charges, per the press release.

This recently concluded investigation was opened in 2017, after Duke University historian Timothy B. Tyson published his book “The Blood of Emmett Till.” Tyson alleged in the book that Carolyn Bryant had recanted her previous testimony in interviews with him, writes Darcel Rockett for the Chicago Tribune.

The DOJ and FBI opened a new investigation to determine whether Bryant had recanted and, if so, whether she had any information that could lead to the prosecution of a living person or herself. After reviewing the evidence, the departments determined that they had “not uncovered sufficient evidence to support a federal prosecution,” per the Chicago Tribune.

Authorities emphasize that a lack of federal prosecution in Till’s murder does not mean that Carolyn Bryant’s 1955 testimony in state court was “truthful or accurate.”

“There remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events, which is contradicted by others who were with Till at the time, including the account of a living witness,” they said in the release.

Investigators informed Till’s family members about the conclusion of his case in a meeting last week. Speaking during a press conference last Monday after the meeting, Till’s cousin Thelma Wright Edwards noted her disappointment.

“I have no hate in my heart, but I had hoped that we could get an apology. But that didn’t happen and nothing was settled,” Edwards said, per CNN. “The case is closed, and we have to go on from here.”

The last living witness to Till’s abduction and murder is his cousin and best friend, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. Parker witnessed both the 1955 grocery store encounter and Till’s abduction firsthand.

“Today is a day that we’ll never forget,” Parker said at the same press conference, per the Chicago Tribune. “For 66 years, we have suffered pain for [Emmett’s] loss and I suffered tremendously because of the way that they painted him back in the day.”