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Federal Officials Close Emmett Till Cold Case as TV Show and Star-Studded Documentary Are Set to Peak Interest

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Kisha Smith

As interest heightens in the details surrounding one of the most infamous acts of racial violence in our nation’s history—the lynching of Emmett Till—in the lead up to the release of a six-part limited TV series and star-studded documentary, federal officials have officially closed their cold case re-investigation into his murder.

The case had been re-opened in 2017 after a professor alleged in a book he’d written, The Blood of Emmett Till, that a white woman, who was a witness to crucial events leading up to Till’s abduction and murder, had recanted her previous accounts of those events. In response, the department and the FBI examined whether the woman had recanted and, if so, whether she had information that would allow prosecution of any living person.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Mississippi had conducted the investigation as part of its Cold Case Initiative— a comprehensive effort to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago— and pursuant to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (Till Act). 

In the summer of 1955, the 14-year-old Till traveled from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, to visit relatives. On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and approximately six other youths drove to a store in Money. According to witnesses, Till bought some items and upon leaving whistled at a white woman, who’d been in the store. Till’s companions, aware of the dangers posed to Black men perceived to have violated the unwritten, racist code prevalent in the Jim Crow South, hurried to get Till away from the store.

A few days later, in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, Roy Bryant, his half-brother John William (J.W.) Milam, and at least one other person abducted Till from the home of his relatives. Three days later, a teenager fishing in the Tallahatchie River discovered Till’s brutally beaten body floating in the river. Till’s assailants had weighed him down with a 75-pound cotton gin fan, which they tied to his body with barbed wire.

State officials charged Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam (both now dead) with murder; they were tried the following month and acquitted by an all-white jury. During the trial, the woman testified under oath that Till had propositioned her and physically touched her hand, arm and waist while they were both inside the store. Following their acquittals, both Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam confessed to kidnapping and murdering Till in a published magazine account.

In early 2017, new information emerged suggesting that the woman may have confessed to a professor, who later wrote a book about Till’s murder, that the account she provided to the state court in 1955 was untrue. 

The woman however, when asked about the alleged recantation, denied to the FBI that she ever recanted her testimony and provided no information beyond what was uncovered during the previous federal investigation. Even had she lied, officials say they could not prosecute her as the statute of limitations would have expired.

On January 6, ABC is set to debut “Women of the Movement”, the first season of which will explore the lynching of Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley’s quest for justice. A star-studded companion documentary, Let The World See, will feature Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Common, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michael Eric Dyson and members of Till’s family who are still seeking justice.

Produced by Jay Z’s Roc Nation, Will Smith’s Westbrook Studios and Aaron Kaplan’s Kapital Entertainment—the documentary, will follow episodes of Women of the Movement over the course of three consecutive Thursday nights. 


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