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Portrait of Emmet Till lying in his bed. Till was a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was murdered by white men in Leflore County in Mississippi because he allegedly whistled at a white woman.
A portrait of Emmet Till lying in his bed. Till, 14, from Chicago, was murdered by white men in Tallahatchie County in Mississippi in 1955 because a white woman accused the Black teenager of whistling at her.Bettmann / Getty Images

Despite reportedly confessing to lying, Emmett Till’s accuser will remain free

A historian said Carolyn Bryant Donham recanted allegations of sexual harassment against Till that preceded his murder. But the Justice Department couldn't prove it.


The Department of Justice announced Monday it has officially closed the investigation it had reopened into the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. The Black teenager's gruesome slaying and his mother's insistence that the brutality be displayed on camera to the world were major inspirations behind the civil rights movement. 

Till was abducted, tortured and killed in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white half-brothers. They were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Days later, the two men confessed to the killing in a paid interview. 

For now, justice more than a half-century in the making remains elusive.

The story told during the men’s murder trial was that Till had grabbed and propositioned Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. The Justice Department reopened the murder case in 2018 after historian Timothy Tyson claimed the woman, now Carolyn Bryant Donham, told him during an interview that the accusations against Till were "not true."

But Donham told federal investigators that she never recanted her story, the Justice Department wrote in a memo Monday.

“A recantation would directly contradict both her testimony at the state proceedings in 1955 and the statements she provided to the FBI during the previous investigation,” it said. In other words, the repercussions for lying to federal investigators are steep. 

Still, unable to prove she’d lied to investigators, the department's Civil Rights Division closed the Till case without federal charges. But the department's memo stopped far short of clearing Donham’s name. 

“What is clear from all accounts is that [Donham] suffered no physical harm and that Till’s conduct was likely perceived by many in the white community to violate their unwritten code, prevalent in the Jim Crow South, that Black men were forbidden from initiating interactions with white women,” according to the memo.

For now, justice more than a half-century in the making remains elusive.  

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