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We know who killed Emmett Till. Why doesn't the Justice Department?

Jul. 20, 2018
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Googling the phrase “Emmett Till killers” yields the same results every time: two names. Specifically, those of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. The brother-in-law duo killed Till, a black teenager who whistled at Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, in Jim Crow Mississippi 63 years ago. Outraged by the fourteen-year-old’s behavior, they put a plan in motion on the morning of August 28, 1955. At around 2:30 in the morning, the pair stormed the home of Till’s uncle, where Emmett was staying at the time. They threatened the family. They forced Till into the back of their truck. Then, they drove him to Milam’s tool shed, where they began brutally beating him with the back of a pistol Milam had from his time serving in the military. After they had Till bruised but not badly bleeding, they forced him into the truck again. The next stop was to pick up an old fan from a cotton gin. They made Till lift the 74 pounds back into the truck. Then to the river bank. They ordered Till to strip. He complied. They shot him in the head. Till dropped to the ground. Dead. Not enough, they bonded Till’s neck to the fan with barbed wire, and rolled his body into water 20 feet deep. 

This version of events comes from the mouths of the killers themselves in an interview with Look Magazine Bryant and Milam gave the year after they were acquitted of murder charges in the case of Emmett Till. 

In Milam’s own words, "Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless. I'm no bully; I never hurt a n***** in my life. I like n******—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, n****** are gonna stay in their place. N****** ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when a n***** gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that n***** throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. G*d*mn you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”

What Milam does not mention is the fact that Till’s body was found days later—that it was so disfigured nobody could identify it, that is, until a ring on the right hand of the body was matched to one Till wore. He did not point out that at least one of Till’s eyes was missing from its socket, nor did he recount that Emmett’s mother had an open casket funeral for her son so that everyone could see what Bryant and Milam had done to him. 

In a world where pictures of Till’s face is a grotesque Google away, the United States Department of Justice has reopened Till’s case. Bryant and Milam have been dead for decades. So what does the justice department hope to gain from proving them the murderers?  

They are striving, ultimately, to appease the African American communities that Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a career of attacking. Sessions was denied federal judgeship in 1989 in part because of comments that the Klu Klux Klan were “okay guys” until he found out they smoked pot and that the NAACP was “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” He also emphasized the threat of “black identity extremists” in August of 2017 but was far less concerned with white supremacist groups. With a problematic history in African American communities (and being a member of an administration that struggles with that as well), the DOJ is trying to gain some good press.  

“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,” said Timothy Tyson, author of last year’s bestseller The Blood of Emmett Till.

“And I think it is rich with irony.”