U.S. reopens Till murder case
May 11, 2004
BY DEBRA PICKETT Staff Reporter Advertisement
"It's like Sam Cooke said, 'A change is gonna come.' And it sure did," said Wheeler Parker on Monday morning. "It took a long time, but it sure did."
Parker, now 65, still remembers what happened in the early morning hours of Aug. 28, 1955, when armed men took his younger cousin, 14-year-old Emmett Till, from the Mississippi farm house where they were sleeping.
"It was so terrifying to hear them in the darkness, coming your way," he said. "Especially when you're 16 and you don't want to die."
The men stopped at Parker's bed, looked him over and decided he was not the one.
"We're looking for the fatter one," they said and headed back to the smaller bedroom where Till -- who had a round face and the lingering baby fat of a much-indulged only child -- another cousin and an uncle were bunked in. The next thing Parker heard was the roar of a truck's tires speeding away. He would never again see Emmett Till alive. No one in the family would.
Nearly 50 years later, Parker, who had once given up on the idea of "Mississippi justice," has heard along with the rest of the world that the U.S. Justice Department is working with Mississippi prosecutors to re-investigate the case.
"In times past," Parker said, "Mississippi wouldn't do anything."
Two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, were tried for Till's abduction and murder and were acquitted by an all-white jury. They later confessed to the crime in a 1956 interview in Look magazine. Bryant died in 1994, Milam in 1983.
Now, a Mississippi district attorney, Joyce Chiles, will partner with federal investigators to look into whether any prosecutions remain possible under state law. The statute of limitations on all federal charges has already passed.
"The Emmett Till case stands at the heart of the American civil rights movement," said R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division who announced the new initiative on Monday. "We owe it to Emmett Till, and we owe it to ourselves, to see whether after all these years, some additional measure of justice remains possible."
FBI agents will interview witnesses and conduct the bulk of the investigation in the case, said Hallie Gail Bridges, assistant district attorney in Mississippi's Fourth District, where the crime occurred. The district attorney's office will offer legal advice to aid the investigation and will launch new prosecutions if appropriate, she said.
Till, who lived in Chicago with his mother, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he and Parker walked to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in the rural town of Money. Parker waited outside while Till bought some candy.
Carolyn Bryant, the store owner's wife who was working the cash register that day, claimed Till "sassed" and "wolf-whistled" at her. Two days later, Bryant's husband and his half-brother forced their way into the tiny cabin where Till and his cousins were sleeping.
'Gone for good'
"They came into my room," said Simeon Wright, whose father, Till's uncle Moses Wright, owned the cabin, "where Emmett and I were sleeping in one bed. I was awake, there was all this commotion. Milam had the gun, he was the one doing the talking. He told me to lay back down. And he told Emmett to get dressed and come with him. I knew he was gone for good."
There were, says Wright, now 61, two or three more people taking part in his cousin's abduction: a woman, presumed to be Carolyn Bryant, sitting inside the truck, who was heard identifying Till as "the boy who did the talking," a man standing on the porch, who seemed to have directed the others to the cabin, and, possibly, another man sitting in the rear of the truck ready to grab Till when Bryant and Milam brought him outside.
None of these people had ever been identified until New York filmmaker Keith Beauchamp launched a new investigation of the case with his documentary "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." The film, which Beauchamp showed to a group of state and federal prosecutors in Mississippi in March, features witnesses who suggest that as many as 10 people were involved in Till's kidnapping, murder and a later attempt to cover up the crime. Beauchamp told prosecutors that five of those people are still alive.
Beauchamp's claims revitalized efforts that began with Till's late mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to re-open the case. Mobley, who died in January 2003, is credited with helping to spark the civil rights movement with her quest to find justice for her murdered son. She insisted that Emmett's grotesquely mutilated body, which was recovered by a fisherman in the Tallahatchie River several days after his abduction, be brought home to Chicago and publicly displayed.
Motivation for a movement
More than 100,000 people viewed Till's glass-topped casket at A.A. Rayner's South Side funeral home. Thousands more saw pictures in Jet magazine.
"[The] Brown [vs. Board of Education decision in 1954] provided a legal framework for the civil rights movement," said Christopher Benson, the Chicago writer who collaborated with Mobley on her memoir Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America (Random House: $24.95), "but Mamie gave people the motivation."
Rosa Parks would later say she was thinking of Emmett Till, and the horror of what happened to him, when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus months later in 1955.
Since Mamie Till Mobley first brought the case to the world's attention, calls for further investigation have come from the NAACP, a Chicago City Council resolution in January 2004 and a congressional resolution introduced by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in February.
"We hope that Emmett Till and his mother can now rest in peace," Rush said Monday in Chicago.
Family members said Mobley would indeed have been pleased to see the case reopened.
"It was her dying wish," said Mobley's cousin, Abriel Thomas, who has been working with the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, where Mobley and Till are buried, to build a mausoleum and memorial exhibit to honor their memory. The memorial is expected to open next year.
Contributing: Lucio Guerrero, Ana Mendieta