CHICAGO (CBS/AP) — The Justice Department is reopening its investigation into the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago whose death helped spark the civil rights movement.
In a March report to Congress, the Justice Department said it received “new information” about the case, but the report did not indicate what that information might be. The federal case was closed in 2007, when authorities said all the suspects in Till’s murder had died.
Till, 14, was lynched and shot in Mississippi after whistling at a white woman. His badly mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
His funeral attracted national attention, because his mother insisted on an open casket, exposing his disfigured face to the world.
The reopening of the federal case comes on the heels of a book published last year, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” in which the woman who claimed Till whistled at her reportedly admitted she lied in court. Carolyn Bryant Donham testified at her husband’s trial that Till had grabbed her and threatened her. Her spouse and a co-defendant were acquitted by an all-white jury.
The two men later confessed to the murder in a Look Magazine interview, but were not retried because of double jeopardy.
Donham, who turns 84 this month, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. A man who came to the door at her residence declined to comment about the FBI reopening the investigation.
“We don’t want to talk to you,” the man said before going back inside.
Paula Johnson, co-director of an academic group that reviews unsolved civil rights slayings, said she can’t think of anything other than Tyson’s book that could have prompted the Justice Department to reopen the Till investigation.
“We’re happy to have that be the case so that ultimately or finally someone can be held responsible for his murder,” said Johnson, who leads the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the status of the probe.
Watts, Till’s cousin and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said it’s “wonderful” that the killing is getting another look, but didn’t want to discuss details.
“None of us wants to do anything that jeopardizes any investigation or impedes, but we are also very interested in justice being done,” she said.
Abducted from the home where he was staying, Till was beaten and shot, and his mutilated body was found weighted down with a cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River. Images of his mutilated body in the casket gave witness to the depth of racial hatred in the Deep South and helped build momentum for subsequent civil rights campaigns.
Relatives of Till pushed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reopen the case last year following publication of the book.
Donham, then known as Carolyn Bryant and 21 years old at the time, testified in 1955 as a prospective defense witness in the trial of Bryant and Milam. With jurors out of the courtroom, she said a “nigger man” she didn’t know took her by the arm.
“Just what did he say when he grabbed your hand?” defense attorney Sidney Carlton asked, according to a trial transcript released by the FBI a decade ago.
“He said, ‘How about a date, baby?'” she testified. Bryant said she pulled away, and moments later the young man “caught me at the cash register,” grasping her around the waist with both hands and pulling her toward him.
“He said, ‘What’s the matter baby, can’t you take it?'” she testified. Bryant also said he told her “you don’t need to be afraid of me,” claiming that he used an obscenity and mentioned something he had done “with white women before.”
A judge ruled the testimony inadmissible. An all-white jury freed her husband and the other man even without it. Testimony indicated a woman might have been in a car with Bryant and Milam when they abducted Till, but no one else was ever charged.
In the book, author Tyson wrote that Donham told him her testimony about Till accosting her wasn’t true.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” the book quotes her as saying.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, introduced legislation this week that would make the government release information about unsolved civil rights killings. In an interview, Jones said the Till killing or any other case likely wouldn’t be covered by this legislation if authorities were actively investigating.
“You’d have to leave it to the judgment of some of law enforcement agencies that are involved or the commission that would be created” to consider materials for release, Jones said.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)