In memory of Emmett Till
THE GOVERNMENT is beginning its investigation of Emmett Till's murder 49 years late, but slow justice is better than none.
Till, a 14-year-old black youth, was murdered twice back in 1955 -- once by the Money, Miss., thugs who beat him, shot him, and tossed his mutilated body into the Tallahatchie River, and then by a racist legal system that turned its back on the crime. Both atrocities -- and his mother's insistence on an open casket -- helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives, did not know that he was putting his life in danger that August day when he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white store owner. Three days later he was yanked out of his bed at his uncle's house and dragged off into the night.
Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother J.W. Milam -- both now dead -- stood trial for the murder but were acquitted after an all-white jury deliberated for 67 minutes. No law enforcement agency came after them a year later when they sold their story of how they murdered Till to Look magazine, and there was never an investigation into who else might have been involved.
It was not until the airing of Stanley Nelson's award-winning documentary on the murder last year on PBS and the making of another film, not yet completed, by Keith Beauchamp that the wheels of justice finally began to turn. Last week the Justice Department announced that it would join Mississippi in reopening the case and seeking prosecution for accomplices to the 1955 killing.
In recent years the federal government has successfully sought convictions for the murder of civil rights worker Medgar Evers, the deaths of four little girls killed in a Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, and the slaying of a sharecropper, Ben Chester White.
Full disclosure on these high-profile cases completes the ugly stories of good people brought down by hate and bears witness to the countless victims whose names never made the newspapers because such brutality and ignorance were so hideously common.
Finding out what happened is a debt that must be paid, for there is no statute of limitations on a family's pain, the demands of national conscious, or the power of the truth.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.