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EDITORIAL: FBI can still set history straight on Emmett Till’s murder

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

After 63 years, America may finally set history straight on the murder of Emmett Till.

We’ve never known the full story of what happened on that hot August night in rural Mississippi in 1955, when grown white men felt emboldened to kidnap and murder a 14-year-old black boy visiting from Chicago’s South Side.


Like wolves, lynchers usually traveled in packs to do their evil work. So, we wonder, could accomplices still be alive? Did other men blinded by racist hate help Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam lynch a teenager who just wanted to spend the summer having fun with his cousins?

Did Carolyn Bryant Donham tell lies beyond the one that set the lynching in motion — a fabricated story, tailor-made to raise the ire of racists in the Jim Crow South, about Till’s purported vulgar behavior?

What else don’t we know about a brutal murder that made national headlines and galvanized the country’s burgeoning civil rights movement?

The FBI will answer those questions and leave no stones unturned, we hope, as it re-investigates Till’s vicious murder. They should start with Donham, who recanted her story in the 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”

“That part’s not true,” she told the book’s author, speaking about her testimony six decades ago that Till grabbed her and uttered obscenities.

Donham is now in her 80s. A grand jury declined in 2004 to indict her in connection with Till’s murder. But it’s never too late to get the official record straight.

Till’s cousin made that point eloquently last year, not long before his death. “It’s important to get history right. Even if years have flowed by,” said Simeon Wright, who witnessed Emmett’s kidnapping.

READ MORE: Sun-Times archive on Emmett Till

Wright and other Till family members wanted the case re-investigated. We called for that too, because Till’s story is an integral part of history, for Chicago and for America.

His murder, horrific though it was, galvanized African-Americans to step forward and claim their full rights as citizens in a then-segregated South.

“The case was a spark for a new generation to commit their lives to social change, you know?” said Robin D.G. Kelley, a New York University professor, in an interview with PBS. “They said, ‘We’re not gonna die like this. Instead, we’re gonna live and transform the South so people won’t have to die like this.’”

A few months after Till’s murder, the ripple effect was felt outside Mississippi. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott and an eventual Supreme Court ruling that segregated public buses were unconstitutional.

We don’t know what fruit this latest investigation will bear.

But another Till cousin said it right in an interview with the Associated Press: “We just hope that justice will prevail.”

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