EDITORIAL: History demands the full story of the death of Emmett Till

SHARE EDITORIAL: History demands the full story of the death of Emmett Till

This family photo, taken in Chicago, shows Mamie Till Mobley and her son Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. | AP

It’s important to get history right. Even if years have flowed by. What we do in the future has everything to do with what we did in the past.

Simeon Wright

Simeon Wright

The horrifying story of Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was abducted and killed in 1955 in Mississippi, is a critical part of our American history, especially for Chicagoans. Emmett was one of us. But we have never fully known the details of how he was murdered — of how he was, in the language of Jim Crow, “lynched.”

On Saturday, a funeral was held in the Chicago area for Emmett’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who had witnessed Till’s abduction. The funeral reminded us, once again, of the unresolved business of exactly who killed Emmett and how, and for the need to seek answers even now. For all we know, there are accomplices in Emmett’s death still walking this Earth — old, but walking. Lynchers in the South tended to move in packs.


Till’s murder was national news, and it helped rally passionate support for the civil rights movement. He was slain after a white woman said he acted vulgarly toward her in a store. An all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of murdering Till, but the two men later told Look magazine — knowing they could not be tried again — that they had committed the crime.

In February, Till’s family asked the FBI to re-investigate after the woman in the store, Carolyn Bryant Donham, told the author of a book that she was lying when she testified that Till touched her. In April, it was reported the U.S. Justice Department might reopen its investigation. We urge them to do so, though we know this is unlikely to happen under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The FBI re-opened the case in 2004, but a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood, Mississippi, chose then not to indict Donham.

At a time when Americans are debating the history entwined with statues of Confederate heroes, a clear and full accounting of historic American racism in all its forms, including the murder of Emmett Till, is essential.

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