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Federal Prosecutors Re-opening Racially Charged 1955 Murder of Black Teen - 2004-05-10

The U.S. Justice Department is reopening an investigation into one of the most notorious murder cases of the civil rights era of the 1950's and 1960's. Federal and state officials in Mississippi are once again looking into the case of Emmett Till, a black teen-ager from Chicago who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955.

The Emmett Till case is one of the touchstones of the U.S. civil rights movement. The 14-year old from Chicago was visiting family in Mississippi in August of 1955 when he supposedly whistled at a white woman. He was abducted, brutally beaten and shot. His body was found three days later by fishermen in a nearby river.

Pictures of Emmett Till's battered body shocked the world and brought new attention to the plight of blacks in the American South. The Till murder and the outrage it sparked is considered by many one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's.

The announcement that the government is opening an investigation into Emmett Till's murder was made in Washington by the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, R. Alexander Acosta. "Though his murder was brutal and tragic, Emmett Till unwittingly played a pivotal role in launching the modern civil rights movement. 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," he said.

Two local white men were charged with Emmett Till's murder but were acquitted by an all-white jury. They have both since died. In 1956, Look magazine published an interview with one of the accused in which he admitted that he and his friend did, in fact, carry out the beating and killing and later disposed of Emmett Till by tying his body to a fan with barbed wire and throwing him in a river.

A recent public television documentary brought renewed attention on the case and suggested that several other people who may have been involved in the crime were never brought to justice. Some prominent African-American civil rights leaders have asked for the case to be reopened.

Assistant Attorney General Acosta says the new investigation will attempt to bring closure in the case and will try to determine if anyone else was involved in the murder of Emmett Till. "You know, it is a nearly 50-year old case. The two individuals who were charged initially with the murder are now dead. But as part of the documentary and as part of the renewed interest, additional information was brought to our attention. Even if it is incredibly difficult, it is an appropriate use of (Justice) department resources to investigate matters such as this," he said.

Federal charges can no longer be brought in the Till case since there was a five-year statute of limitations in effect at the time. But state charges could result from this latest probe that is being carried out by both federal and state investigators.