Emmett Till's Family’s ‘Heart Is Broken’ After Justice Department Closes Investigation

The DOJ closed its investigation after finding “insufficient evidence” that a white woman had recanted her claims that led to the Black 14-year-old’s lynching.

Emmett Till’s family members said they were “not surprised” but still heartbroken after the Justice Department officially closed the investigation it had reopened into Till’s brutal 1955 lynching and whether a white woman had recanted the claims that led to the Black 14-year-old’s murder.

“I’m not surprised but my heart is broken,” Till’s cousin Thelma Wright Edwards said at a press conference Monday in Chicago. “I had hope that we could get an apology, but that didn’t happen. Nothing was settled. The case is closed and we have to go on from here.”

On Monday, the Justice Department met with members of Till’s family to tell them that the agency had closed the investigation it reopened in 2018 into the teen’s murder.

In 1955, white men lynched 14-year-old Till after Carolyn Bryant Donham claimed the boy had harassed her in a Mississippi grocery store. Bryant Donham’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped, brutally beat and tortured the teen, shot him dead and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury acquitted the men. Till’s killing and the photos of his brutalized body from his funeral fueled the civil rights movement.

The DOJ reopened the investigation into Till’s death after a 2017 book quoted Bryant Donham, who is still living, admitting that she had lied about what happened.

The DOJ and FBI examined whether Bryant Donham had recanted, as the book claimed, which could have led to new charges, including against her.

But after years of inquiry, officials concluded that “there is insufficient evidence” that Bryant Donham had, in fact, recanted her story, according to a press release from the DOJ.

“When asked about the alleged recantation, [Bryant Donham] denied to the FBI that she ever recanted her testimony,” the release said, adding that there is “insufficient evidence to prove that she ever told [the book’s author] that any part of her testimony was untrue.”

Officials noted that there also “remains considerable doubt as to the credibility of her version of events,” adding that Bryant Donham’s story is “contradicted by others who were with Till at the time.”

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till's cousin, speaks at a press conference on the Justice Department closing its investigation into the 1955 lynching.
Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till's cousin, speaks at a press conference on the Justice Department closing its investigation into the 1955 lynching.

“This family has waited 66 years to learn who would answer for Emmett. And now we know: nobody. And that’s a tragedy on top of a tragedy,” said Christopher Benson, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University who met with the DOJ, FBI and other officials with Till’s family on Monday.

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin and best friend, who was in the house when the men kidnapped Till in the middle of the night, said that “today is a day we’ll never forget,” speaking of officials closing the investigation.

“For 66 years we have suffered pain, loss,” Parker said, noting he was only 16 years old when his cousin was kidnapped and killed.

“You did not die in vain,” he said of Till. “We can’t bring him back, but we can carry on and let America know we need to know the truth.”

Till’s cousin Ollie Gordon echoed other family members that the government’s findings “came as no surprise.”

“I did not expect they would find new evidence… or be able to validate Carolyn Bryant recanting her story,” Gordon said, urging people to “look to the future.” “Where do we go from here? Even though we don’t feel we got justice, we still must move forward. Let’s figure out how we can continue to make change.”

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