Feds reopen Emmett Till murder case, family 'wants justice to prevail'

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A cousin of Emmett Till,  whose gruesome murder in Mississippi 63 years ago helped light a fire under the civil rights movement, said Thursday her family is "extremely pleased" the Justice Department has reopened the investigation into the black teen's death.

"We want the process to work and we want justice to prevail for Emmett," Deborah Watts told USA TODAY. "This cannot just be forgotten."

Till was abducted Aug. 28, 1955, three days after Carolyn Donham, a white, 21-year-old shopkeeper in the town of Money, said the 14-year-old grabbed and wolf-whistled at her.

The battered body of Till, nicknamed "Bobo," was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River. The viciousness of the killing rocked the nation, and the woman's then-husband and another man were charged with murder. Both were acquitted by an all-white jury later that year.

The Justice Department said in a statement Thursday that it was reopening the investigation "after receiving new information" it did not detail. The decision was revealed to Congress as a one-word notation on a chart in a February report, and was first reported by the Associated Press.

"Because it is an active investigation, the department cannot provide any additional information at this time," the department said Thursday.

Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, made sure her son's casket was left open for the viewing so the public could see how badly he had been beaten. Tens of thousands of African-Americans paid their respects.

"Mamie Till’s decision to allow African-American media outlets to display her son’s battered body was one of the critical events that galvanized African-Americans to fight to end America’s racial dictatorship through the Civil Rights movement," said Alvin Tillery, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.

More: Emmett Till eyewitness dies; saw 1955 abduction of his cousin

Emmett Till's death made news last year with publication of "The Blood of Emmett Till." The book, written by Timothy B. Tyson, quotes Donham admitting in 2008 that she wasn't telling the truth when she made the claims. Donham, now in her 80s, lives in North Carolina.

Watts, founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, said the family had been hopeful the book would lead to a "vigorous" investigation – and possibly charges against Donham.

"We always understood that she (Carolyn Donham) had lied," she said. 

USA TODAY was unable to contact Donham. The Associated Press said a man who answered her door said Donham would not comment.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson tweeted Thursday: "In memory of #EmmettTill and thousands of other black men, women & children lynched, we must finally pass anti-lynching law."

Four months after the widely publicized trial, Look magazine published an account of the killing they said they obtained from Donham's then-husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother, J.W. Milam. In the article, the men admit beating Till and tossing him in the river, weighed down with a 74-pound cotton gin fan.

Milam told the magazine that the men wanted to beat and scare Till, not kill him. But when he could not be frightened, they decided to kill him, Milam said.

"What else could we do?" Milam told the magazine. "When a (expletive) gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him."

Miliam died in 1980, Bryant in 1994. The federal government reopened the case in 2004 but closed it in 2007 with no further charges being filed.

The Justice Department's February report was required under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016. The bill reauthorized investigation and prosecution of civil rights violations that occurred before 1970, expanded powers to include crime in the 1970s, required that families be kept abreast of developments and demanded an annual report on the investigations to Congress.

Simeon Wright, who said he was a witness to Till's abduction, died in September. He said he was present when Till wolf-whistled at Bryant's wife at the store.

Wright, in his book "Simeon's Story," says that days later, on Aug. 28, 1955, Wright and Till were sleeping when Milam and Bryant entered with guns. He said his mother begged the men not to take Till, even offering them money.

"They had come for Bobo," Wright wrote. "No begging, pleading or payment was going to stop them."

The men took Till away, and Wright never saw him again.

"I must have stayed in the bed for hours, petrified," Wright wrote.

Contributing: Jerry Mitchell, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

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