Jewish World Review May 18, 2004 /27 Iyar 5764
Ashcroft has made murder of Emmett Till a federal case
Christopher Benson could hardly believe his ears. He had just received word that the Justice Department is opening a federal investigation into what may be American history's most famous lynching, the death of Emmett Till almost 50 years ago.
"Those of us who grew up with this story thought we would never see the day when it would be investigated," Benson said in a breakfast interview in Washington's historic Willard Hotel.
This is the hotel where, among other historical events, Martin Luther King penned the final draft of his "I Have a Dream" speech. Appropriately, justice for Emmett Till was a spark that helped to energize the modern civil rights movement.
Still, I could not help but wonder, why now? Why this sudden expression of concern by the Justice Department of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft? More important, will the new investigation do any good a half-century later?
Benson, a lawyer and features editor for Ebony, has asked himself the same question. With Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett's mother, he co-authored the new book, "Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.). Till-Mobley died early last year before the book was published.
"She was never bitter," Benson recalled. "She never hated anybody, not even the men who killed her son. She never wanted them to be executed. She only wanted them to feel sorry for what they had done."
What they did was to snatch the 14-year-old black youth, who was visiting from Chicago, out of his great-uncle's cabin in Money, Miss., for the alleged crime of whistling at a white woman.
His battered and bloated body turned up days later in the Tallahatchie River with a gunshot wound in his head, his face smashed to a pulp and a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
Two white men were charged with the crime and, in the fashion of those times, acquitted by an all-white jury. A year later both confessed in detail for a $4,000 fee in a Look magazine interview. Acquitted once, they could not be tried again.
Nevertheless, the Till murder drew more attention than any of the previous century's other 4,000 lynchings of African Americans because of his mother's courageous decision to leave his casket open. Aided by black publications such as Jet and the Chicago Defender, the world saw the horrors committed on her son. As Benson put it, "There could be no innocent bystanders after that."
Three months after the trial, Rosa Parks famously refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus and helped launch a new civil rights era. She would later tell Till-Mobley that, of all of her many thoughts that day, uppermost in her mind was Emmett Till.
The two accused white men are also dead. But when R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights, announced the new investigation, he cited new information and "renewed interest," including two new documentary films by directors Keith Beauchamp and Stanley Nelson, that indicate more than two men were involved in the killing and that some participants may still be alive.
"We owe it to Emmett Till," Acosta said. "We owe it to his mother and to his family and we owe it to ourselves to see if, after all these years, any additional measure of justice is still possible."
I think we owe it to our future, too. The Justice Department still carries a lot of historical baggage in many minds from the days when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dragged his agency's heels on civil rights cases in the 1950s and `60s. Hoover suspected King was communist-influenced and secretly disrupted some of the movement's activities.
It is unfortunate that a few recently reopened high-profile cases like young Emmett's have to stand for so many lesser-known unsolved murders that were committed in brutal, ultimately futile efforts to preserve white supremacy.
During the summer of Till's death, for example, two other black voting rights activists, the Rev. George Lee and farmer Lamar Smith, were murdered in other Mississippi Delta towns. Despite witnesses, those cases were never solved, either.
Today, with extraordinary corrective measures like affirmative action apparently on the wane, it is particularly important that the Justice Department put some teeth behind its efforts to defend the fundamental rights of everyone to equal treatment under the law. Even in old cases like Emmett Till's, justice delayed is better than no justice at all.
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