Duke scholar, who revealed a lie in the Emmett Till case, calls new investigation ‘a political show’

Author Timothy Tyson dismissed the Justice Department’s reopening of the infamous Emmett Till civil rights murder case Thursday, calling it an “utterly cynical, completely hypocritical political show” by the Trump administration and the Justice Department.

His remarks came after The Associated Press revealed Thursday morning that the Justice Department is reinvestigating Till’s slaying in Mississippi after receiving “new information,” according to a federal report sent annually to lawmakers under a law that bears Till’s name.

The report issued in late March doesn’t indicate what that information might be, The AP reports. The case had been closed since 2007.

But Tyson, a senior research scholar at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, broke the long silence on the case last year with his book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which many in civil rights circles credited with triggering the Justice Department’s move.

In the book, Carolyn Bryant Donham, who is 84 and now lives in Raleigh, acknowledged to Tyson that she didn’t tell the truth in 1955 about the circumstances that led to Till’s death.

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Thursday afternoon at a press conference, Tyson called the reopened investigation a calculated attempt on behalf of the Trump administration to improve its civil rights profile in the face of negative news about immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border and with continued efforts to undermine minority voting rights.

The Till case, Tyson said, is both famous and free of political risk because most of those involved are dead.

“There’s no one to prosecute,” Tyson said. “There’s no political casualties. This is a low-cost thing.”

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For his book, Tyson interviewed Donham in 2008, in which she revisited her 1955 statement that Till had grabbed her around the waist and insinuated that he had been with white women before.

Though her testimony was not allowed, the story arose in closing statements at the trial. To Tyson, she explained, “That part’s not true.”

The case was closed in 2007 with authorities saying the suspects were dead; a state grand jury didn’t file any new charges, The AP reports.

The Associated Press reports a man who came to the door at Donham’s residence declined to comment about the FBI reopening the investigation.

“We don’t want to talk to you,” the man said before going back inside.

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It’s unclear what new charges could result from a renewed investigation, said Tucker Carrington, a professor at the University of Mississippi law school, The Associated Press reports.

Conspiracy or murder charges could be filed if anyone still alive is shown to have been involved, he said, but too much time likely has passed to prosecute anyone for other crimes, such as lying to investigators or in court.

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Igniting civil rights movement

Till’s 1955 slaying is often credited with igniting the civil rights movement, reportedly at the front of Rosa Parks’ mind as she refused to give up her bus seat in Alabama.

Tortured, shot and tossed into the Tallahatchie River, the 14-year-old from Chicago had reportedly made advances on a white woman, though accounts of what took place varied widely and were never totally aired in court.

Till’s accused killers — Roy Bryant and J.W. “Big” Milam — were acquitted in court but had confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. But with both of them dead, the trail to new revelations had gone relatively cold.

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Tyson’s interview

Tyson said the FBI contacted him shortly after the book was published in 2017 and that he turned over all his research materials after being placed under subpoena.

News of the reopened investigation was unearthed deep in a federal report released in March. At a press conference Thursday, Tyson was asked how the Justice Department could be seeking to shine up its image with such an obscure placement.

“It’s front page news of The New York Times,” he said. “I know that.”

Tyson said he met with Donham twice in 2008. He had been approached by family members in Raleigh who had read his other book, and he met with Donham at their invitation. The interview was recorded with her knowledge, he said, but he described her health as poor.

“She seemed to be in a sorrowful state of mind,” he said.

Tyson received a copy of Donham’s unpublished memoir “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham,” which he gave to UNC-Chapel Hill under the restriction it not published until 2036 or her death, according to The Washington Post.

At the press conference Thursday, he confirmed he had read the memoir.

Tyson said the Till investigation has never really closed. But he knew of no action that might come from pursuing it further other than Donham being charged with perjury, which is not possible due to a long-expired statute of limitations.

Asked if she should be prosecuted, he said, “I don’t know. You’re just going to have to ask an attorney about that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08