Jewish World Review March 31, 2004 /9 Nissan 5764
Pressure building to warm up cold case
It was a little more than a month after his 14th birthday that Emmett Till was pulled from bed in his uncle's house on a dark night in Money, Miss.
When his body was recovered days later from the Tallahatchie River with an industrial fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, the Chicago teen's face was beaten so badly that his family identified him through the ring on his finger.
Young Emmett's alleged offense, under the region's peculiar customs and traditions, was to have whistled at a white woman while black in rural Mississippi in August, 1955.
If he did whistle, his mother would explain later, it was only because that was how he tried to control his stutter.
Now, as the case approaches the 50th anniversary of Till's death, a new movement has arisen with some new information and an admirable sense of urgency calling for a new investigation of the case.
That's appropriate. In fact, it's about time.
An all-white jury predictably acquitted Roy Bryant, the woman's husband, and J.W. Milam in a county where money for their defense fund was defiantly collected in cans and Mason jars in local shops.
A few months later, the pair admitted in a 1956 Look Magazine article that they had indeed killed young Emmett, allegedly because he talked back. "We were never able to scare him," one of the men said.
Now two books and two documentaries raise serious questions about what we think we know about the case.
One documentary, Keith Beauchamp's nine-year project "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," interviewed a man who was jailed in another city at the time of the trial to prevent him from testifying.
Beauchamp suggests that as many as ten people, black and white, may have been present at the murder, willingly or unwillingly, and that some may still be alive.
Till's mother Mamie Till-Mobley died last year at 81, but left a newly published book, "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.), co-authored with Christopher Benson, which also decries the large, gaping blank space in the justice system's official record concerning her son's death.
Moved by such stirring accounts, the NAACP, Chicago City Council and a resolution recently introduced in Congress call for the Justice Department to open a new federal investigation into Till's death.
"This is a crusade that I'm on," Rep. Bobby Rush (D., Ill.), who introduced the congressional resolution, told me in his Capitol Hill office. "It's a passion of mine to make sure that our generation, as it prepares to ride off into the sunset, resolves what has been one of the biggest issues of the past 50 years."
To black Americans who grew up as I did under its haunting shadow, Till's horrible death is the quintessential cold case of the last half century.
It stands out from the thousands of lynchings that preceded it because of his mother's dramatic decision to leave his casket lid open, exposing his horribly mutilated face to the world.
With that brave act, she helped embed her son's memory in the minds of a generation as the martyr whose death helped launch a historic civil rights movement. Thousands of mourners queued up to view his body on Chicago's south side. Bob Dylan would write a protest song. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., 100 days after Till's death, igniting a decade of civil rights protests, she told reporters that she gained courage by thinking of Emmett Till.
With the two principle suspects dead, many people question whether the case has grown too cold to follow. But, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in late February that, after meeting with Beauchamp, U.S. Atty. Jim Greenlee of Oxford, Miss. also has asked the Justice Department to take a new look at the case. Greenlee declined to comment on the report.
If the FBI does step in, it is important to remember, it will be for the first time.
Under the late J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI turned a blind eye to such civil rights violations, leaving them to the states. Instead, we now know, Hoover wiretapped and harassed black activists like Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, of which Rush used to be an Illinois leader.
In the meantime, Hoover left a lot of cold cases behind. It's time to set the record straight. Justice delayed does not have to be totally denied.
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