clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Emmett Till investigation closed by Justice Department after key witness denies she recanted the story that led to his murder

The killing galvanized the Civil Rights Movement after Till’s mother insisted on an open casket, and Jet magazine published photos of his brutalized body.

This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. The U.S. Justice Department told relatives of Emmett Till on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 that it is ending its investigation into the 1955 lynching of the Black teenager from Chicago who was abducted, tortured and killed after witnesses said he whistled at a white woman in Mississippi.
This undated photo shows Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old Black Chicago boy, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 1955 after he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi.
AP Photos

Relatives of Emmett Till gathered Monday at the FBI’s Chicago office on Roosevelt Road to hear the crushing news — the investigation into the teen’s 1955 abduction and murder at the hands of two white men in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman was officially being closed — no one would be charged.

“Today is a day that we will never forget,” the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and best friend, said Monday at a news conference held downtown. “For 66 years we have suffered pain for his loss, and I suffered tremendously because of the way that they painted him.”

Family members said they were disappointed but not surprised.

“I had hoped that we could get an apology but that didn’t happen. Nothing is settled. The case is closed and we have to go on,” said Thelma Wright Edwards, a cousin of Till’s, who was in the same bedroom with Till the night he was abducted.

Thelma Wright Edwards, Emmett Till’s cousin, speaks Monday at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where members of Emmett Till’s family commented on the final investigation report in Till’s murder.
Thelma Wright Edwards, Emmett Till’s cousin, speaks Monday at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, where members of Emmett Till’s family commented on the final investigation report in Till’s murder.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“This is a family that’s waited 66 years to learn who will answer for Emmett, and now we know: nobody. And that’s a tragedy on top of a tragedy,” said Northwestern University Professor Christopher Benson, who helped organize the news conference and is co-authoring a book on Till with Parker.

Till, who was 14, was murdered following an encounter with Carolyne Bryant Donham at a store in the small community of Money. Till was there to buy candy. She had claimed that Till grabbed her, whistled and made sexual advances. Relatives have publicly denied that Donham, who is in her 80s, was reported to have recanted her allegations about Till.

The FBI reopened an investigation into Till’s death following the publication of a 2017 book by history professor Timothy Tyson that claimed Donham had recanted her story about Till.

Donham, however, denied to the FBI that she ever recanted her story. And Tyson did not have a recording of her recanting.

A news release posted to the Department of Justice website Monday stated: “Although lying to the FBI is a federal offense, there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to the FBI when she denied having recanted to the professor.”

Days after Till was killed, his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, where it was tossed after being weighted down with a cotton gin fan.

Following his death, Donham’s husband at the time, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J. W. Milam, were charged with murder.

Both men, who are now deceased, were acquitted by an all white jury.

However, months later, they confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine.

Till lived in Chicago but was in Mississippi to visit relatives.

The killing galvanized the Civil Rights Movement after Till’s mother insisted on an open casket at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville, and Jet magazine published photos of his brutalized body.

The Justice Department in 2004 opened an investigation of Till’s killing after it received inquiries about whether charges could be brought against anyone still living. The department said the statute of limitations had run out on any potential federal crime, but the FBI worked with state investigators to determine if state charges could be brought. In February 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict anyone, and the Justice Department announced it was closing the case.

Donham has been living in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The FBI in 2006 began a cold case initiative to investigate racially motivated killings from decades earlier. A federal law named after Till allows a review of killings that had not been solved or prosecuted to the point of a conviction.

The Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act requires the Justice Department to make an annual report to Congress. No report was filed in 2020, but a report filed in June of this year indicated that the department was still investigating the abduction and killing of Till.

Contributing: Associated Press