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Published: Monday, 5/17/2004

Till's cry for justice

Some say the modern civil rights movement began with the horrifying murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Now, the U.S. Justice Department will finally investigate what happened to the black teenager, whose gruesome death opened this nation's eyes to the reality of segregation in the south.

Emmett, who was spending the summer with relatives, was dragged from his bed, beaten unmercifully, shot, tied to a cotton fan, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River.

Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, were accused, tried, and as usual in those days, speedily acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Once acquitted, the men, now dead, bragged about the murder to author William Bradford Huie after they were paid by Look magazine to tell their story.

Rumors persisted over the years that other people were involved in the crime, although federal authorities, to the government's shame, ignored calls for a probe.

Now the Justice Department can no longer ignore the need to conduct an investigation, thanks to new evidence contained in two documentaries by a pair of New York City filmmakers about the black Chicago teenager's murder.

Keith Beauchamp's The Untold Story of Emmett Till and Stanley Nelson's The Murder of Emmett Till strongly suggest that more people were involved in this savage killing.

However, the heroine in this story is not an official, but a mother. Emmett might have been another forgotten victim of American apartheid had it not been for his mother's courage and determination.

Mamie Till Mobley, who died in January, 2003, insisting that the world see what happened to her son, demanded an open casket funeral. The picture of his disfigured face was reprinted in Ebony and elsewhere - and shocked a nation. Black northerners were forced to face up to the savagery of the racism that black southerners still lived with, and many whites were forced to do some soul searching, too.

Now, the Justice Department has at last done what it should have undertaken back in the Eisenhower administration.

It must move swiftly, though. It's been almost 50 years, and individuals with a connection to the case are dead or getting old.

Justice already is long delayed, but it is essential that justice not be completely denied.

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