USA Justice

Could a confession from Emmett Till's accuser lead to a new investigation?

Relatives of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old victim of a 1955 lynching, have called for a new investigation into the case following a recent confession from his accuser. 

Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son's funeral in Chicago on Sept. 6, 1955.
Chicago Sun-Times/AP/File
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Could a new investigation offer fresh insights into a 62-year-old murder case? 

Relatives of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy brutally killed after whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, say they hope a recently-revealed confession from Mr. Till's accuser could lead authorities to reopen the infamous case. 

In the 1955 trial of Till's killers, Carolyn Bryant Donham testified that the teenager had grabbed her and made sexual advances. One decade ago, she repeated the same story to the FBI. Now, Timothy Tyson, author of the newly published book "The Blood of Emmett Till," says Ms. Donham admitted to him in a 2008 interview that she lied about Till touching her.

It's unclear whether the confession, which came as no surprise to those familiar with the case, will lead to a new investigation, as experts say it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute Donham today. Nevertheless, they say, it's an important step for a nation attempting to atone for its past while grappling with questions of present-day racial inequality.

"Bryant's confession is important not because those who know about the case had any doubt about Till's complete innocence," says James Goodman, a professor of history and creative writing at Rutgers University, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "It is important as a reminder to those who don't know about the case that the experience of African Americans today can only be fully understood in the context of a history in which black lives did not matter even remotely as much as white lives." 

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, two of Till's cousins, Wheeler Parker and Deborah Watts, suggested that a new investigation may provide answers to lingering questions surrounding the horrific murder widely recognized as a catalyst of the civil rights movement. 

"We know that she has admitted that she lied, and we know that is part of the reason Emmett is no longer with us," said Ms. Watts, a resident of Minneapolis, Minn. "If there is any chance to reopen the case, I hope they will take this opportunity to do it now."

But while a reinvestigation could shed some light on previously murky details of Till's death, it's unlikely that it would result in legal justice, says Devery Anderson, author of the 2015 book "Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement." The confession offers no new insights into the murder itself, as the lynching had already occurred by the time Donham falsely claimed that Till had grabbed her. And, as the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports, the statute of limitations has long expired for her crimes of lying on the witness stand in 1955 and again when the FBI reopened the case in 2004. 

"If there was an investigation at this point, it would be to disclose the truth, if there are other things she's hiding," Mr. Anderson tells the Monitor in an interview. "I'm all for an investigation if there's something that could come out of it, but I'm just not optimistic." 

Perhaps more significant than the legal aftermath is the confession’s capacity to bring about symbolic justice, experts say. Even though Donham's confession may not surprise many, confirmation from Donham herself is nonetheless valuable. 

"With all the media coverage and racial anxiety today, I think it's really important that there be no question that the event in 1955 was a racial injustice," says Dave Tell, associate professor of communications at the University of Kansas, in a phone interview. "To have it now from the mouth of Carolyn Bryant, I think it does really important things for how the murder is going to be remembered."

Since the inception of Black Lives Matter, many have drawn connections between the modern-day movement decrying systemic racism in the criminal justice system and the case of Emmett Till, whose killers were acquitted in 1955. These comparisons make Donham's confession all the more timely, says Professor Tell, who is one of four scholars behind The Emmett Till Memory Project.

"What seems to be at play in every single one of these recent invocations comparing Emmett Till to Black Lives Matter ... is that the victims of the Black Lives Matter murders are victims of institutionalized violence," he says. "Even though the police were not involved in the murder of Emmett Till, it was ... the sort of institutional structures of the law in Mississippi that ensured that Emmett Till’s murders would not be punished. The confessions of Carolyn Bryant make it all the more obvious that what happened in 1955 was a blatant disregard of truth, a blatant disregard of black bodies in favor of white power structures." 

While the confession undoubtedly marks an important development in the legacy of Emmett Till, some experts caution against letting the controversy over Donham's lies on the witness stand distract from the cultural forces that led to the lynching in the first place.

Till was murdered because he whistled – a fact that no witnesses, including his cousin, Mr. Parker, refute, notes Clenora Hudson-Weems, a professor of English at the University of Missouri and author of the 1994 book "Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement," as well as three other books about Till. Donham's telling the truth in court wouldn't have changed that: "It was the whistle, not the lie, that instigated the lynching. Her lie came after the lynching in an attempt to victimize herself and mar his character." 

"Society’s ways, its mores and its attitudes, that's what killed him," Professor Hudson-Weems says in a Monitor interview. "It was not a lie that everything was based on. It was one simple thing, racism." 

Acknowledging past truths, she continues, is a good first step – but atonement and change require action as well as dialogue. 

"That’s how you get redemption, by doing good," she says. "You can’t change [what happened], but you can try to do something to change the way we act in the future toward each other."