Emmett Till’s family members met privately with Jeff Sessions, head of the U.S. Department of Justice, to ask him for ... well ... justice.
The U.S. attorney general met with Emmett’s cousin—Deborah Watts, the co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation—and Alvin Sykes, a member of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, on Tuesday. Emmett’s relatives were in Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, where his casket is displayed as a prominent exhibit.
Watts and Sykes specifically pushed Sessions to enforce the Emmett Till Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act, signed by President Barack Obama in November 2016, which authorizes the FBI to investigate cold-case civil rights crimes committed before 1980. According to the Associated Press, Emmett’s relatives didn’t specifically speak in depth about his case, which is significant for two reasons:
- In January, Carolyn Bryant Donham—the woman whose accusations led to Emmett’s being killed—publicly admitted that she lied when she said the 14-year-old made sexual advances toward her. Since her revelations, civil rights groups, including the NAACP, have called for her prosecution.
- Sessions hates hate crime legislation. When it comes to protecting people who are discriminated against, he uses the same justification that has been used for everything from preserving slavery to anti-LGBTQ crimes: states’ rights.
In a 2009 hearing, Sessions said the following about federal hate crime laws:
You know the discrimination; African Americans couldn’t go to certain schools, they couldn’t use certain restrooms, there were other kinds of routine biases against them. Out of that was why this bill passed. But today, I am not sure women or people with different sexual orientations face that kind of discrimination. I just don’t see it. So I believe that if they are harassed or discriminated against unfairly, we probably have the laws—I believe we have the laws to fix it. So what the question would be, is this one necessary? I’m not sure that it is. Matter of fact, I don’t think that it is, based on what I know.
In August 1955, Carolyn Bryant accused Emmett Till of grabbing and whistling at her in a Mississippi country store. Bryant’s husband and her brother went to Emmett’s great-uncle’s home, kidnapped the teenager and brutally tortured him before killing him and tossing his body into the Tallahatchie River. When Emmett’s body was recovered, his mother decided to have an open casket to highlight the heinousness of the crime. An all-white jury would find Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam not guilty of murder two weeks later. The two killers would later confess in an interview with Look magazine for a $3,000 payday.
As of today, there are public confessions from Emmett’s murderers, as well as one from the woman whose false accusations prompted the entire chain of events that led to his death. In addition, there exists a law named after the victim, passed specifically for this exact type of incident, which could finally close a six-decades-old civil rights case.
If Jeff Sessions does not prosecute Carolyn Bryant, can we at least stop calling it the Department of Justice?