The long, tragic tale of Emmett Till, whose murder became one of the leading factors in creating the modern civil rights movement, continues with apparently no end in sight.
CNN’s Laura Jarrett reported that “the Justice Department has officially closed its investigation into the infamous killing of Emmett Till for a second time, leaving only more questions after a potentially significant claim from one of the last living witnesses led investigators on a fresh hunt for evidence.”
According to Jarrett, “in 2017, Professor Timothy Tyson unearthed what appeared to be a key piece of evidence in one of the most haunting and grisly murders of the Jim Crow Era: a recantation from the woman at the center of the case who had accused Till of making sexual advances at her over 60 years ago.”
However, after following what it called an “exhaustive” investigation, the Justice Department has revealed that it cannot definitively prove whether the woman actually lied to federal investigators.
“Fourteen-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 — the scene of his fateful encounter with then-20-year-old Carolyn Bryant Donham,” Jarrett said. “Witness accounts from that day differ, but witnesses alleged that Till whistled at Donham as she left the market she ran with her husband. Donham testified that Till grabbed her hand and propositioned her, saying that he had been with ‘white women before.’”
Whether that happened or not remains controversial. Although Donham included that information in her original 1955 testimony, she denied its veracity during a 2008 archival interview, telling Tyson point-blank that “that part’s not true.”
Following her revelation, social justice advocates called for an official reopening of Till’s case — the second time a request of such had been made. In 2007, the Justice Department initially reopened the case for a similar examination, only to conclude later in the same year that no new prosecutions could occur in the case because of existing statutes of limitations.
Based on Tyson’s claims of what Donham had told him, federal investigators ultimately decided to probe into the case again and met with Donham for interviews. However, the now-senior citizen was now adamant that she had not recanted her testimony, saying she could provide no further clarity on the events that led to the killing of Till or those who might have participated in the teen’s death.
“Sources say that the critical statements Tyson attributed to Donham were not recorded or transcribed, and he gave authorities inconsistent statements on whether a recording had ever been made,” Jarrett said. “Tyson took some notes of their conversation, but he did not provide a firm timeline of when her confession reportedly happened.”
In a statement to CNN, Tyson stood by his story, saying, “my reporting is rock solid. Carolyn Bryant denies it and avoids talking about it like it was the plague. I am standing in the public square telling the truth as I see it based on solid evidence.”
“While witness accounts and memories differ as to Till and Donham’s interaction on the day in question — ultimately the 14-year-old Black teen was kidnapped, tortured and killed at the hands of two White men who were prosecuted in state court and acquitted by an all-White jury,” Jarrett reported. “The men later admitted to the killing in an interview with Look magazine and are now dead. The image of his mutilated body, first published in Jet Magazine at his mother’s request, was seared into the minds of many as one of the enduring images of the civil rights era.”