Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2004 /11 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Still seeking justice for the murder of Emmett Till
Almost a half-century after the infamous torture and murder of a 14-year-old black Chicago youth in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman, new attention has turned to the woman at whom he allegedly whistled.
A gripping, two-part "60 Minutes" report on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which began Sunday, hits its bracing climax when correspondent Ed Bradley and producer Michael Radutzky find Carolyn Bryant, the former wife of Roy Bryant, one of Till's self-admitted killers.
Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam were tried for Till's murder and acquitted in 1955. A year later they confessed to Till's murder in a story they sold to Look magazine but implicated no other suspects besides themselves. Witnesses interviewed by reporters would recall others, including at least two black men, among Till's abductors in the dark of night. Carolyn Bryant was suspected of assisting in the kidnapping, Bradley reports, but never charged.
Now age 70 and living in Greenville, Miss., she is divorced, remarried and known as Carolyn Donham. Bradley reports that she also is the focus of a long-overdue federal investigation into Till's murder that the U.S. Justice Department launched in May.
In news terms, that's the big "scoop" in the advance "60 Minutes" videotape I received from CBS. But the report has other revelations that also sound like scoops, if only because they were covered up or simply overlooked for so long.
And that raises a troubling question: Is it too late for the case of Emmett Till to find justice?
Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary on the Till case helped launch the FBI probe, has said that Carolyn should be prosecuted. Till's uncle, now deceased, said he heard what probably was her voice in a car, identifying Till during his abduction.
But David Beito, an associate University of Alabama history professor interviewed by Beauchamp and more recently by the FBI because of his extensive research into the Till case, doesn't think anyone can be prosecuted. Two many have died, including Milam and Roy Bryant, and too many memories have grown fuzzy.
Nevertheless, Beito told me in a telephone interview, an FBI agent who interviewed him recently sounded quite optimistic, saying the investigation already has found new information, including old aerial photographs by the Department of Agriculture that detail houses, sheds and other significant locations related to the case.
Beauchamp helped launch the federal probe after he shared information with investigators that implicates as many as 14 people, including three black men. Four of the white men and one of the black men are believed to be alive today.
CBS' Bradley found that surviving black man, Henry Lee Loggins, in Ohio. On camera, he denies all of the allegations that witnesses had raised against him long ago. Even if he was guilty, Beito correctly notes, it would not be fair to try him "as though he were a free agent" when, as a black employee of J.W. Milam, he easily could have been coerced into assisting the crime.
And what about Bryant-Donham? Would a jury believe her grandmotherly countenance to be the face of evil? Or simply a Delta woman who went along with the customs and traditions of what is so often elegantly called "the Southern way of life," the only way she knew? We can't know for sure until there's a thorough investigation.
If ever there was a historic case crying out for the truth to be told, this is it. Journalist David Halberstam, who covered the tragedy, would later call it quite accurately, "the first great media event of the civil rights movement," driven in part by Till's mother, the late Mamie Till Mobley, and her courageous decision to leave his coffin open for the public to see what racists had done to her only child.
It was also a defining event in the lives of African-Americans of my generation. I turned 8 years old that summer. Few of us will ever forget the Jet magazine photo of Till's body clad neatly in a suit and necktie in his coffin and his face brutally pulverized beyond recognition. Three months after the trial, Rosa Parks would cite Emmett Till as part of her motivation for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, which helped launch the historic Montgomery bus boycott.
"There was no justice for me in Mississippi," says Mamie Till-Mobley in her book, "Mamie Till-Mobley: A Life," that was completed by her co-author, Christopher Benson, after her death. "Nothing about that trial was even remotely related to justice."
Till's mother could not find justice before she died. We need to try to find it now. We owe it to her memory and to our own peace of mind.
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