DOJ reopens Till case amid book revelations
WASHINGTON — New information published in a 2017 book prompted federal investigators to reopen their probe into the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in rural Mississippi, according to two people familiar with the case.
Till, a 14-year-old boy visiting from Chicago, was killed after he was accused of whistling at and making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, during an interaction at Bryant’s grocery store in Money, Miss. The teen was kidnapped Aug. 28, 1955, and was tortured and shot.
His mangled body was found days later in the Tallahatchie River.
The book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by historian Timothy Tyson, includes the first-known interview with Bryant, during which she conceded that Till had not come on to her sexually — a disclosure that contradicted her testimony six decades earlier, when she told a jury that Till grabbed her by the waist and uttered obscenities.
“That part’s not true,” Bryant told Tyson, according to the book. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
The release of Tyson’s book in January 2017 reignited interest in the federal investigation into the case, which put a spotlight on racial violence and galvanized the civil rights movement. The book also spurred speculation about whether Bryant, now known as Carolyn Donham, could face charges.
The Washington Post was unable to reach Donham, who is now in her 80s and lives in Raleigh, N.C.. The Associated Press reported that a man who answered the door at her home told a reporter: “We don’t want to talk to you.”
Tyson, who said he talked to Donham during two interviews in 2008 and finished writing the book eight years later, said someone from the FBI contacted him a few months after his book was published. He gave the FBI agent “everything he wanted to see,” Tyson said, and his research materials were subpoenaed.
He added, however, that he does not believe the investigation would lead to any criminal charges.
“Because the only thing that she disclosed to me is perjury, that she testified falsely in court,” said Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke University. “The statute of limitations on that ran out in 1958.”
Tyson received a copy of Donham’s unpublished memoir, “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” which he gave to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the restriction that it not be released until 2036 or until Donham’s death.
He said he does not know why Donham decided to talk to him.
Donham’s former husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, were prosecuted for Till’s death. An all-white jury acquitted them after just over an hour of deliberation — but the two later told a journalist that they had killed Till. They died without being convicted.
Federal and state officials have reinvestigated the case in recent decades. The case was closed in 2007.
In March, a year after Tyson’s book was published, the Justice Department told Congress in a report that the investigation into Till’s death has been reopened “after receiving new information.”
The Justice Department declined to comment Thursday.
The grave site of Emmett Till at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. Till, 14, was abducted, tortured and killed in 1955.