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Thelma Wright Edwards knows this is the last chance for justice for Emmett Till. The next few weeks and months will determine whether there will ever be closure for her beloved cousin “Bobo”, as the family affectionately call the child.
The Guardian has learned that a reinvestigation of the boy’s murder that has been carried out by the FBI over the past three years could be wrapped up in weeks. For Thelma and the rest of the Till family, a decades-long struggle for justice is fast approaching its conclusion.
In August, it will be 65 years since the battered and bloated body of the 14-year-old Till was fished from the muddy waters of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. His kidnapping, torture and murder on 28 August 1955 for having whistled at a white woman was a defining moment of postwar American history.
It set in train a sequence of events that led African Americans in the south to make an unprecedented stand, sparking the civil rights movement. Today his name is emblazoned on history books, memorialized in movies, while the glass-topped casket which tens of thousands of mourners walked by before his burial now stands as the centerpiece of the National Museum of African American history in Washington DC.
To Edwards, 88, Emmett Till’s next of kin, he is more than a legend of history. He is the adored cousin who she remembers as a “mischievous peacemaker” forever devising pranks and cracking jokes.
For the Till family, he is also the subject of a current, burning struggle for the truth. In all those 65 years, not a single person has been held accountable for the teenager’s death.
Not a day has been spent in jail nor a penny paid in compensation. In the only trial ever to be held after Emmett’s body was retrieved from the river, the two white men who later confessed to murdering him were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, and spent the rest of their lives in freedom.
The FBI decided to revisit the case in 2017 in the light of new leads concerning the woman who Emmett whistled at – Carolyn Bryant. What the FBI may or may not have discovered about her role in the abduction of the boy and the aftermath of the murder amounts to the final hope for resolution in the case.
Two white men confessed to the murder: Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s husband, and his half-brother JW Milam. Both men are dead, as are all other individuals directly linked to the events leading up to the killing. With one exception: Carolyn Bryant, and even she is understood to be in poor health.
As a result, the Till family knows that if justice is ever to be done, it must be done now.
“I have never got over the shock and pain of losing Emmett, it was barbaric what they did to him, he was just a kid,” Edwards said. “We’ve been waiting 65 years and still nothing. That makes us feel like second-class citizens, to be treated like that.”
As the Till family anxiously awaits news of the FBI’s investigation, Edwards and another of Emmett’s cousins, Deborah Watts, are launching a new push for redress on behalf of Emmett Till as well as the hundreds of other victims of racially motivated murders from the civil rights era whose cases have never been solved.
Watts, who is spearheading the new Justice for Emmett Till campaign, was a toddler at the time of her cousin’s death. She plans for the campaign to culminate in August in a number of commemorative events in Mississippi – coronavirus permitting – to mark the 65th anniversary.
She hopes the initiative will stimulate legislation to empower families of victims of civil rights era murders. The campaign aims to provide trauma counseling for those still suffering from the loss of loved ones decades ago, as well as legal advice on how to pursue restitution.
In her own family’s case, Watts said: “We want the record straight. We want to know what happened on the night Emmett was kidnapped. And before it’s too late we want those responsible to be held accountable.”
When the FBI revisited the Till murder in 2017, its agents contacted Edwards and other members of the Till family. But since that initial flurry of activity, Edwards said she has heard nothing from investigators, leaving her feeling suspended in limbo.
Speaking from her home in Ocala, Florida, Edwards told the Guardian: “I’m disappointed that nothing seems to have happened. It feels to me they aren’t trying to do anything, that’s the way I feel.”
Last September, her son Ozzie Edwards wrote to the FBI in Jackson, Mississippi, appealing for information about the revived investigation. “My mother and I are anxiously awaiting some kind of news or progress report regarding the FBI’s findings. We are much concerned with how the investigation is coming along.”
The FBI has yet to reply.
Publicly, the FBI has kept silent about the nature of its latest inquiry. The agency declined to answer Guardian questions, citing justice department policy that would “neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation”.
But as it approaches the end of its work, pressure is mounting. Investigators will know how much is riding on a case of such historic significance.
The FBI investigation was triggered by the publication in 2017 of a book on the murder, The Blood of Emmett Till. It caused a sensation by reporting that Carolyn Bryant had recanted the testimony she had given at the murder trial of her husband and brother-in-law a month after Emmett was killed.
Bryant told the court that the teenager had sexually accosted her inside the store. Describing Emmett as an n-word, she alleged he had propositioned her. “How about a date, baby?” she claimed he said to her, grabbing her around the waist and telling her he had been “with white women before”.
Bryant’s account of Emmett’s alleged louche behavior was critical at trial because it spoke to one of the core white supremacist mores of the segregated south. Black men – or even a black boy, barely 14 – should on no account show sexual interest in a white woman.
It took the jury just an hour of deliberations to set the brothers free.
Four months later, Roy Bryant and Milam agreed to be interviewed by Look magazine for a $4,000 fee. Confident that they could not be prosecuted twice for the same crime under the double jeopardy rule, they admitted to abducting, beating and murdering Till. Milam said he did it “just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand”.
Given the key role that Carolyn Bryant’s lurid account of Emmett’s supposed sexual advances played in letting the murderers avoid justice, the revelations in the 2017 book were incendiary. In it, Bryant is quoted by author Timothy Tyson as saying “That part’s not true”, referring to her allegation that the boy had sexually accosted her.
Carolyn Bryant’s apparent recantation, her admission that she had lied to the court during the only trial ever to take place over the murder, was so significant it sparked the FBI’s current investigation. The Guardian has learned that as soon as the FBI began reinvestigating the Till case three years ago, following the publication of Tyson’s book, the author handed over all his manuscripts and notes on the murder to detectives.
That included a manuscript that Carolyn Bryant had written and had given him for safe keeping. Tyson classifies the writings in his book as an “unpublished memoir” with the title More Than a Wolf Whistle.
Tyson had agreed with Bryant that her manuscript, together with tape recordings of the interviews she gave the author, would be held at the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Wilson library. The documents and tapes are stored among Tyson’s wider collection of research materials and as part of the agreement have been placed under a routine archival stipulation that they remain closed to the public until 2036 or until Bryant dies, whichever comes sooner.
Tyson told the Guardian that having deliberated about the matter, he came to the conclusion that the FBI’s investigation into such a critical case trumped the archival agreement he had reached with Bryant. He added that her manuscript, which he had correctly but perhaps unwisely termed a “memoir”, was of little or no value to investigators.
It runs to a mere 30 pages and is not complete. Tyson went as far as to describe the document as “flimsy”.
To add to the complexity of the FBI’s job in revisiting the case, since Tyson’s book came out the Bryant family has denied that she ever recanted her 1955 testimony. Bryant herself has said nothing more about it in public.
The confusion surrounding the as yet unseen writings of Carolyn Bryant, compounded by the family’s denial, has left her precise role in events uncertain to this day. The only person who could definitively set the history books – and the legal record – straight is Bryant herself, and she is maintaining her silence.
The Guardian contacted her through a relative but she declined to comment. The relative, speaking on condition of anonymity, said her health is failing and she shrinks from public attention as tensions still run high over the murder.
On one level, Emmett’s brutal murder was just one among more than 4,000 terror lynchings that stained the soul of America from the 1870s until the 1950s. What made it exceptional was the insistence of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, that his body be brought back up from Mississippi to Chicago where it would be displayed in an open casket for all the world to see what the sadism of white men had done to her son.
Emmett was abducted to “teach him a lesson” for having wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant. For that insolence, for that violation of the rules of white supremacy, Roy Bryant and Milam took the boy from his bed in the middle of the night, drove him in a pickup truck to Milam’s shed and tortured him over several hours.
Witnesses passing by said they could hear a young boy’s frightened voice crying out: “Mama, please save me”; “Please, God, don’t do it again.”
Later that day, the brothers shot the child above the right ear and threw his body in the river weighed down with a cotton-gin fan.
When Mamie Till-Mobley saw the corpse for the first time, she could not recognize her own boy. His disfigured face, she said, had its “right eye lying midway of his chest, his nose broken like someone took a meat chopper to it, and a bullet hole which I could look through and see daylight on the other side”.
One hundred days after the murder, Rosa Parks was riding on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when the driver ordered her to move to the segregated black seats at the back. She was about to do as told, but then the image of Emmett’s brutalised body came back to her and she refused.
Emmett Till. Rosa Parks. The Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King. History draws a straight line from the lynching of that 14-year-old child to the eruption of the civil rights movement.
And that straight line can be extended to the unfinished business that is the subject of the Justice for Emmett Till campaign today.
Thelma Wright Edwards remembers crying “until I couldn’t cry any more” when news reached her outside Chicago of her cousin’s death.
The two were very close, having spent 10 years under the same roof after their families relocated to Illinois from Mississippi as part of the Great Migration of African Americans to the north. It was to Edwards’ family home in the tiny hamlet of Money, in the cotton-picking Mississippi delta, that Emmett travelled on vacation that summer of 1955 to stay with her parents, Moses and Elizabeth Wright.
Edwards’ late brother Simeon, then 12, was asleep in the same bed as Emmett when he was abducted.
The trouble began three days after Emmett arrived in Mississippi. On the afternoon of 24 August 1955, he teamed up with Simeon and another cousin, Wheeler Parker, who had travelled down with him from Chicago.
Together with a few friends they went to hang out at the Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a general store located in a wooden shack a couple of miles from the Wrights’ home.
What exactly happened when Emmett Till entered the store and encountered Carolyn Bryant, then 21, minding the counter, has been a matter of conjecture over many years. It is understood to be one of the key questions that the FBI has been grappling with in its reinvestigation.
Wheeler Parker, 80, recently gave a speech at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey attended by the Guardian. He told the audience that he had been in touch with the FBI and was hoping to learn the fruits of its latest efforts, though he declined to discuss details. Parker said he plans to reveal anything he learns in a forthcoming book about his cousin’s murder, A Few Days Full of Trouble.
Parker recounted his eyewitness recollections of that fateful afternoon. “A lot of things have been said about what went on, things that incriminated Emmett, made him out to be a bad boy from Chicago,” he said. The truth was more mundane.
“Nothing happened. Nothing at all happened inside that store.”
It was only when they were back outside in the open air, Parker said, that Emmett did the deed. “He did whistle. He whistled outside the store. He gave the wolf whistle. Man, we could have all fainted. In Mississippi, in 1955! We knew he’d violated southern mores, that in their eyes he’d committed a great crime.”
What, if anything, will come of the current FBI investigation remains to be seen. It would be difficult to prosecute Bryant for lying at the trial because the statute of limitations on perjury has long since passed.
The Guardian asked Emmett Till’s three cousins to set out what they hoped would arise from the FBI investigation now drawing to a close.
Deborah Watts answered the question as though talking to Carolyn Bryant. “You lied, Emmett died. If you were there, and we know you were, then you need to be held accountable.”
Wheeler Parker said his priority was for the real Emmett Till to be remembered. “He was painted in such a bad light. I want people to know him as he was.”
Thelma Wright Edwards said she had no hankering to see Carolyn Bryant put behind bars. “She’s old, I don’t want her in jail,” she said.
But she did have one final desire after so many years of waiting. “I do want Miss Bryant to admit she lied. Stand up and tell the truth. We can’t move on until we hear it from her mouth.”