The following editorial appeared in the New York Times on Monday, Feb. 6,
The history of the American South is littered with lynchings and burnings of black citizens that went unpunished, either because the authorities could not rouse themselves to charge the killers or because all-white juries reflexively exonerated them.
The case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was kidnapped, mutilated and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, stands out in this long bloody history, both for its savagery and because the episode pushed the country to confront, at last, the racial terror that had long defined black Southern life.
That period comes painfully alive in “The Blood of Emmett Till,” a new book by the historian Timothy Tyson in which Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Emmett of assaulting her, says she lied. (Carolyn Bryant Donham now lives in Raleigh.) This admission is a reminder of how black lives were sacrificed to white lies in places like Mississippi. It also raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the F.B.I.
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Emmett Till was visiting the hamlet of Money in August 1955 when he encountered Ms. Bryant in a store she owned with her husband. Something during a transaction made her take offense, though what remains unclear. Days later, the killers kidnapped Emmett from his uncle’s home, tortured him and shot him in the head. They then tied a heavy cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire and dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.
Under ordinary circumstances, a death like Emmett’s would have passed unremarked into history. His mother prevented that by tirelessly publicizing the case — and keeping the coffin open at the funeral so that mourners and newspaper readers all over the world could view the mangled remains of her child.
Ms. Donham’s husband Roy and his half brother J. W. Milam were charged with murder. Documents show that Ms. Bryant told her lawyer at the time that the teenager had “insulted” her. But by the time of the trial, Mr. Tyson writes, Ms. Bryant had become “the mouthpiece of a monstrous lie,” claiming that the teenager had grabbed her around the waist while uttering obscenities. The fraudulent testimony was meant to convince the court that Emmett’s behavior justified his death.
Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam, both now dead, were acquitted, though they later confessed to the murder in an article in Look magazine in 1956. The killing embarrassed the United States before the world and did much to inspire the modern civil rights movement.
The F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover, who ran it until he died in 1972, was more focused on undermining civil rights groups than on enforcing federal law. In 2004, prompted by two documentaries suggesting that people other than Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam had been involved, the F.B.I. reopened the Till investigation. The case remains unresolved, though Emmett’s body was exhumed as part of the investigation. The original coffin is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where it anchors an exhibition on the freedom struggle.
Ms. Donham’s admission that her testimony was false underscores yet again that killers and collaborators from other racial terror attacks may still be alive — and that the horror of their crimes still weighs heavily on the nation.