Yesterday, the Justice Department announced it was reopening the criminal investigation into the almost 50-year-old killing, whose brutality helped spark the civil rights movement. R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said that a new PBS documentary and other new information provided to federal prosecutors indicated that other people still living may have participated in Till's killing.
"We owe it to Emmett Till, we owe it to his mother and to his family, and we owe it to ourselves to see if, after all these years, any additional measure of justice is still possible," Acosta said.
Although the five-year federal statute of limitations in effect in 1955 has long since expired, charges can still be brought in state court, Acosta said. Federal officials are working with Joyce Chiles, district attorney for Mississippi's Fourth Judicial District.
Acosta would not provide specifics on the new information. "We're opening a criminal investigation," he said. "I can't expand into details of what evidence may or may not have been brought to our attention."
Till's family and civil rights groups such as the NAACP have insisted for years that Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, both of whom are now dead, did not act alone in Till's killing, and they have called for the case to be reopened.
After their acquittal, Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000.
In the magazine interview, the pair described dragging Till - who was visiting from Chicago - out of bed at his uncle's house in Money, Miss., and taking him to Milam's tool shed, where they smashed his head. They then shot him in the head and dumped him into 20 feet of muddy water in the Tallahatchie River. To ensure that he didn't bob to the surface, they tied a 75-pound cotton-gin fan to his neck with barbed wire.
Neither Bryant nor Milam mentioned anyone else taking part.
According to the new PBS documentary, two eyewitnesses testified under oath at the murder trial that at least one other person had taken part.
A case such as Till's wasn't particularly uncommon in the segregated South in the 1950s. It galvanized public outrage, though, partly because of Till's age and because his mother, Mamie, insisted that his casket be open so that mourners coming to pay respects on Chicago's South Side could see how badly disfigured her son was.
"When people saw what happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before. People became vocal who had never vocalized before," Mamie Till Mobley said in an interview with PBS before her death in January 2003. "Emmett's death was the opening of the civil rights movement. He was the sacrificial lamb of the movement."
Three months after Till's body was fished from the waters of Mississippi, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., setting off the legendary bus boycott.
Acosta said the Till case had also become infamous for outrageous behavior at the trial. The defense counsel appealed to the jurors' Anglo-Saxon heritage, suggesting that their white fathers would "turn over in their graves" if they convicted Bryant and Milam.
"The jury deliberated only 67 minutes," Acosta said. "One juror suggested that it would not have taken that long if they hadn't stopped to drink pop."
The Till case is the latest in a series of killings from the civil rights era that the Justice Department has reopened with great fanfare but mixed results.
The department has yet to make real progress in a new investigation into the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., a case memorialized in the film Mississippi Burning. But in 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 killing of NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
Contact reporter Shannon McCaffrey at 202-383-6164 or firstname.lastname@example.org.