The 14-year-old boy for whom the law is named
August 28, 1955
"Emmett experienced the ugliness of Mississippi, that thing that everybody feared, that thing that everybody wanted to avoid."
Deborah Watts & Tiye Rahmah
Cousins of Till
DW: Emmett was an independent person. He would shop for his mom, cook, clean, you know, when she was out working. He, just, was a great companion. And he had a lot of swag, if you will. He loved to make sure he looked his best, and he just, sort of, had this twinkle in his eye… for life.
TR: And what exactly happened to Emmett?
DW: Emmett experienced the ugliness of, of Mississippi, that thing that everybody feared, that thing that everybody wanted to avoid. They kidnapped Emmett and took him through the Delta area of Mississippi, beating him, shooting him and then finding this 75-pound cotton-gin fan and tying it around his neck, and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. His body was discovered, later in the river, only identifiable by the ring that was on his finger that his father… had given him.
TR: What exactly brought Mamie to have an open-casket funeral?
DW: You know, she identified her son and looked at him from head to toe. His remains were nothing like his beautiful face, uh, nothing like what was born to her. She felt that if she described it, no one would ever believe her. And so I don’t know what kind of courage that takes, but she had it to say, look, I want the world to see what they did to my baby.
It just takes me to a different place, you know, when I think about it and uh…
This pain still resides in our hearts and our minds.
TR: Growing up, the image began to have a more significant impact on me, knowing that Emmett was a young teenager just kinda figuring out his way through life. A few years ago I was 14. That could have just as easily have been me.
DW: Yeah… We cannot deny that hatred and that violence is still there. Emmett Till’s case in 2021 is still an open murder case, we’re talking close to sixty six years. And those that still know something, we need them to come forward and to hold those that were responsible accountable.
I am remembering a promise that I made that his death would not be in vain and that’s a living, breathing, legacy and a continuum towards justice for us and for other families too. I think it’s possible.
Photo of Deborah by Patience Zalanga. (Left) Photo of Tiye by HIAJ.CO. (Right)
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, for summer vacation when he was abducted on August 28, 1955, from his great uncle’s house in the middle of the night by a group of white people. His family said the group had accused the boy of flirting with a white woman. His body was discovered three days later in the Tallahatchie River, a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire and extensive trauma to his head, according to an FBI report.
The case received widespread attention, in part because Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral: “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she told the funeral director. Tens of thousands of people filed past the boy’s bloated, mutilated remains.
Even before Till’s body was found, local authorities arrested two local Mississippi men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, on charges of kidnapping; at least one other person was suspected of participating in the abduction but was not charged. After Till’s body was found, the two men were also charged with murder, according to FBI and DOJ memos on the case.
Because Till’s body was found in a different county than the one from which he was abducted, the men faced charges in both. That September, Bryant and Milam were tried for murder in Tallahatchie County; the all-white jury acquitted them. In November 1955 a grand jury in Leflore County declined to indict the men for Till’s kidnapping.
In an article published by Look magazine the following year, both Bryant and Milam admitted to a journalist they had murdered Till. Milam died in 1981 and Bryant died in 1994.
Till Act Status
Nearly 50 years passed before the Department of Justice investigated whether the incident constituted a federal civil rights violation. The department looked into the case in 2004, at the request of the District Attorney of Greenwood, Mississippi, and several other interested parties, according to FBI and DOJ reports.
During its two-year investigation, the FBI obtained and reviewed historical records, interviewed surviving witnesses and analyzed the exhumed remains of Emmett Till. The new investigation identified several other people who participated in the attack, found inconsistencies with old testimonies and learned about a deathbed confession. In 2006, the FBI published a 291-page document with redacted findings. The DOJ concluded there was no way to pursue federal charges, due to statutes of limitations. But it presented the evidence it had collected to Leflore County’s district attorney, Joyce Chiles, to consider state charges.
On February 22, 2007, the district attorney presented evidence to a Leflore County grand jury. Based on that evidence, the grand jury declined to indict anyone for any criminal charge related to the homicide. The FBI closed the case in December 2007.
In 2017, the historian Timothy B. Tyson published the book The Blood of Emmett Till, which included a 2007 interview with Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who had made the original accusations against Till. In the interview, she recanted some of her allegations. This triggered the FBI to reopen its investigation into Till’s murder.
According to a Department of Justice document made public after FRONTLINE’s publication, this case has been closed.
Case Status open**This case has been closed since FRONTLINE's original publication.
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About the Project
This multiplatform investigation draws upon more than two years of reporting, thousands of documents and dozens of first-hand interviews. FRONTLINE spoke to family and friends of the victims, and witnesses, some of whom had never been interviewed; current and former Justice Department officials and FBI agents, state and local law enforcement; lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and investigative journalists, to explore the Department of Justice’s reopening of civil rights-era cold cases under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
In addition to an examination of the federal effort, the project features the first comprehensive, interactive list of all those whose cases were reopened by the Department of Justice. Today, the list stands at 151 names. Among the victims: voting rights advocates, veterans, Louisville’s first female prosecutor, business owners, mothers, fathers, and children.
The project consists of a web-based interactive experience, serialized podcast, a touring augmented-reality exhibit, documentary and companion education curriculum for high schools and universities.
A project like Un(re)solved would not be possible without the historic and contemporary contributions of universities, civil rights groups, and the press, particularly the Black press, who have ensured the ongoing public record of racist violence in the United States. To pay homage to these groups, the web interactive begins with a quote from journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells, one of the first to document with precision the horrors of racial terror in America. “The way to right wrongs,” she wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
At the outset of the project, FRONTLINE forged a relationship with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), bringing them on as an academic partner. Launched in 2007 by Distinguished Law Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ is a mission-driven program of interdisciplinary teaching, research and policy analysis on race, history, and criminal justice. Their work has expanded beyond the names on the Justice Department’s list, archiving documents in over 1,000 cases of racially motivated homicides.
With support from the CRRJ, FRONTLINE reporters gathered what could be known about the individuals on the list, conducting interviews with family, friends and witnesses, delving into newspaper archives and gathering documentation including headstone applications, draft cards and archival photographs.
At the heart of the project has been a drive to center the voices of the families of those on the list. FRONTLINE partnered with StoryCorps to record nearly two dozen oral histories with victims’ next of kin, which are featured both in the web-based interactive and traveling AR exhibit. These oral histories will also be archived in the National Library of Congress.
To lead the creative vision for the web experience and installation, FRONTLINE partnered with Ado Ato Pictures, a premier mixed reality studio founded by artist, filmmaker, and technologist Tamara Shogaolu.
Shogaolu rooted the visuals in the powerful symbolism of trees. In the United States, trees evoke the ideal of liberty, but also speak to an oppressive history of racially motivated violence. In Persian myth, trees are humanity’s ancestors, while in Toraja, Indonesia, they serve as sacred burial sites.
“I was really inspired by looking at the role of the tree as a symbol in American history” Shogaolu said. “It’s been looked at as a symbol of freedom, we look at it as a connector between generations, and also there’s the association of trees with racial terror.” When designing the creative vision for Un(re)solved Shogaolu wondered whether she might be able to reclaim the symbol of the tree. “As a person of color, we’re often terrified of being in isolated places in the woods. And I thought it was kind of crazy that there are natural environments that instinctually give great fear because of this connection with racial terror and I wanted to reclaim that — to turn these into beautiful spaces.”
Un(re)solved weaves imagery of trees, which also recall family ties, into patterns and textures from the American tradition of quilting. Among enslaved African Americans forbidden to read or write, quilts provided an important space to document family stories. Today, quilting remains a creative outlet rich with story and tradition for many American communities.
We invite you to enter this forest of quilted memories — a testimony to the lives of these individuals, and the multi-generational impact of their untimely, unjust loss.
(Credits to come)