Commentary: Why the Emmett Till Murder Case Still Matters By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON Pacific News Service

Tuesday June 07, 2005

The mood was somber when FBI officials recently dug up the body of Emmett Till in suburban Chicago. The mood should have been downright grim. If ever there was a racial lynching case that screamed for federal action it was the Till case. And there are more. 

While on a visit to Mississippi in 1955, the 14-year-old Till was kidnapped from his home at gunpoint, savagely beaten, shot and dumped in a river.  

The instant that story broke nationally, black leaders demanded that the Justice Department and the FBI take action. This was the right demand to make, given the absolute refusal of white Southern sheriffs to arrest whites suspected of racial murders. In the rare cases they were arrested, all-white juries refused to convict them.  

The Till case was no exception. In a farce of a trial, the two white men who killed Till were quickly acquitted. Till’s murder continued to send political shock waves across the nation, and black leaders, labor organizations and numerous public officials implored the Justice Department to get involved. Even then, there was strong suspicion that others were either directly involved in the murder, or had knowledge of the killing. 

Yet Justice Department officials refused to do anything. They claimed that state officials were solely responsible for prosecuting racially motivated crimes, and if those officials refused to do so, or conducted a deliberately incompetent prosecution, there was little they could do. This, however, was blatant legal evasion.  

Federal statutes gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute individuals on civil rights charges when state prosecutors either failed to bring charges, or conducted a weak, ineffectual prosecution that resulted in acquittals. Federal law also gave the Justice Department the power to prosecute public officials and law enforcement officers who committed or conspired with others to commit acts of racial violence. Congress enacted the latter statutes immediately after the Civil War, and they were aimed at specifically punishing racial attacks against blacks. In many of the racial killings, local sheriffs and police officers directly participated in the attacks or aided and abetted the killers.  

Till was abducted at gunpoint. That made it a kidnapping case. This automatically gave federal authorities jurisdiction over the case. They could have easily brought civil rights charges against the two principal defendants and any others who were suspected of complicity in his murder.  

Till, therefore, was not solely a victim of a racist white jury. He was also the victim of a racially indifferent federal government. In the pre-civil rights era, presidents and their attorneys general typically ignored or sparingly used federal statutes to prosecute criminal civil rights abuses. This had less to do with the personalities or potential racial bigotry of the men in the White House and the Justice Department than with political expediency. They were determined not to offend the politically powerful South.  

A half-century later, federal officials were still reluctant to get involved. It took a resolution by Illinois congressman Bobby Rush and demands by civil rights leaders to get the Justice Department to agree to probe the Till murder to see if any new charges could be brought.  

Federal officials should not stop with the Till case. There are still more racial murders that scream for redress. Mack Charles Parker, Herbert Lee and Jimmy Lee Jackson, to name three of the more blatant cases, were victims of racially motivated violence. No state or federal charges were ever brought against their murderers. Some of their suspected killers may still be alive.  

Also, according to FBI reports, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary terror squad in Mississippi, committed several murders between 1960 and 1965. In nearly all cases, FBI agents quickly learned the identities of the suspected killers through Klan informants or the men’s own boasts of the killings. Yet there was only a token effort made to bring them to justice.  

In a final irony that tells much about the changing times, one of the FBI officials who helped supervise Till’s exhumation was black, and born in the South the same year that Till was killed. At the gravesite, he noted that the justice system turns slowly, but it still turns. State and federal prosecutors can prove him right by bringing Till’s killers to justice.  


Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).