It's not clear whether the horrific homicide of Emmett Till was committed by a couple of racist brutes, or a larger number of conspirators.
After being acquitted in Mississippi by an all-white jury, two white men confessed publicly to the murder. However, a Justice Department report last week revealed that Till was abducted at least once more. Experts who have studied the case say that others were involved, ranging from half a dozen to more than 14.
Till's family has been left feeling empty because they haven't received answers to their decades-old questions. Thelma Wright Edwards, a distant relative, spoke about the feeling of emptyness that Till's death has left. She recalled how Till was diapered as a child.
"Nothing was resolved. She said that the case was closed and that we must move on.
The nation was, in a sense deprived of a good ending to an awful story because it is possible that the truth of one of America's most hateful hate crimes may never be revealed.
"On abstract levels truth and justice have been lost. Dave Tell, a University of Kansas professor who wrote "Remembering Emmett Till", said that the complexity of what occurred has been lost.
Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan, traveled to Mississippi in 1955 to visit his relatives. Witnesses claimed that Till whistled at a white woman at a rural grocery shop on Aug. 24, a violation of South's racist societal codes. He was then raped and taken from his great-uncle's house in the early hours of the morning four days later.
Three days later, Till's body was removed from the Tallahatchie River. Roy Bryant (whose then-wife Carolyn was the target of Till's whistle) and Roy Bryant’s half-brother J.W. Milam was charged with murder and brought before an all-white jury in just two weeks.
David Beito, a former professor at the University of Alabama and author who investigated the case, stated that prosecutors presented the lynching from the beginning as the work of a group.
"Their official argument was that the beating took place and that more people were involved. Beito stated that they argued for a conspiracy.
Bryant and Milam were the only ones charged. Willie Reed, a Black teenager, testified that he saw a group consisting of Black men and white men riding in a truck. He later recognized Till from photos. Till's great uncle testified that Bryant, Milam and a third person accompanied Till when they kidnapped him. This indicated the possibility of Till being accompanied by a woman.
Bryant and Milam were acquitted of Till's murder and are now in no legal danger. They were paid to interview Look magazine. In it, they confessed to Till's death and said they were honored to be interviewed by the magazine.
Given the magazine's large circulation, the Look article changed the narrative in the Black press about a group murder, Tell stated.
"For the period of five months, there was a fairly widespread consensus that five white men were involved and that two African Americans were involved. Tell stated, "I feel quite comfortable saying that." "I believe that's what happened."
Beito stated that Milam's relative Leslie Milam supported the notion that a group was involved in a confession made years later about being involved in the execution. He said that several Black men had been suggested over the years as having assisted Till in being restrained in a truck, while their boss and other white men rode along in the cab.
"(The Black men were forced to do so. Tell stated that they didn't have the option of choosing.
Keith Beauchamp was a filmmaker who examined the case for his documentary, "The Untold Stories of Emmett Louis Till." He claimed that as many as 14 Black and white people were involved in the abduction, murder, and cleanup.
Throughout it all, nobody was ever charged with anything, and the story of what actually happened is still a mystery. All possible suspects were killed one after another.
In 2007, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham. Bryant's former wife, now in her 80s, was not indicted by the grand jury. After Donham claimed that Till grabbed her and made sexual advances, the Justice Department reopened their investigation. The investigation did not find any basis for her to be charged with the author's claim she had retracted her statements from 1955. According to the Justice Department report, Donham did not alter her story.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. was a cousin and was present at Till's house and store the night Till was abducted. He expressed dismay over the lack of justice after years of review and the inability to find answers. Parker claimed that he heard his cousin's whistle but that that was it.
He said, "We cannot bring him back, however, we can continue to let America know that we need the truth and that's what our search for."