New mystery over lynching of Emmett Till 50 years ago

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The Independent US

He was a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who, during a summer visit to his relatives in the segregated South, made the mistake of walking into a convenience store and wolf-whistling at the owner's pretty young wife. When the store-owner heard about it, he and his brother-in-law arranged a lynching party, descended in the dead of night on the house where the boy was staying and tore him away from the embrace of his distraught relatives.

By the time his assailants were done with him, he had been beaten, shot, hogtied with barbed wire attached to a heavy fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. When his body was found, his face was horribly disfigured and pulled out of shape, with one eye hanging from its socket. His relatives could identify him only by the signet ring his mother had given him as a keepsake for the journey.

The crime attracted national attention, not only because of its intrinsic horror, but because an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant, the store owner, and his brother-in-law, JW Milam. The verdict was motivated, at least in part, by deliberate defiance towards the burgeoning movement towards racial integration.

The pair later confessed everything, without hint of remorse, in a magazine interview, knowing that America's double jeopardy laws would protect them from a second prosecution.

Most of the participants and witnesses to the crime are dead. But a few troubling and still unanswered questions prevent Emmett Till's fate from being consigned to the history books. Who else was in on the lynching party? And is it possible that some of the lynchers' accomplices were in fact black?

From the start, questions were asked over the role of two of Bryant's black employees, Henry Lee Loggins and Levi "Too Tight" Collins. Both vanished during the trial. Later evidence suggested they had been locked in a county jail to prevent them testifying against their boss . They fled Mississippi in fear of their lives.

Mr Collins died in 1993, but Mr Loggins is 82 and in a nursing home in Ohio, recovering from a stroke. Nobody has suggested either man was involved willingly in Till's death. But pressure is mounting on Loggins to tell the full story - if there is a full story - to lay the ghosts of the past to rest.

Intriguingly, one of the people pressing hardest for him to do so is his son, Johnny B Thomas, who grew up in Mississippi without his father and is now the mayor of the dwindling rural town of Glendora, not far from the place where the boy was tortured and killed.

Mr Thomas does not believe his father's lifelong denials of involvement in the murder, and has offered himself as a go-between with state and federal prosecutors to secure his father's immunity in exchange for full disclosure.

"I really, really hope he'll tell the world what happened," Mr Thomas told the Los Angeles Times. "I think the world will probably forgive him."

Not everyone agrees with Mr Thomas, to put it mildly. His sister thinks her father has been telling the truth when he says he was not involved. And some academic researchers feel rumours about two black men being involved is in itself a deliberate racial slur that should be debunked, not propagated further.

Members of Emmet Till's family find Mr Loggins' long silence, if that is what it is, so galling he should not necessarily be granted immunity. Emmett Till's cousin Simeon Wright, who was sleeping in the same room when Till was taken away on that August night in 1955, believes Mr Loggins has had more than enough time to come forward.

"He didn't do it," Mr Wright told the Times. "He could have cleared the air [and] got those who were involved while they were alive. As the saying goes, it's on him now. I would like to see him talk. And if he doesn't talk, throw the book at him."

Mr Loggins insisted from his hospital room that he was not part of the lynching party. He told the Times that if he knew anything about the boy's death, "I would tell it, because he was my colour".

The South has taken a long time to come to terms with the darkest chapters in its past, addressing what the writer James Lee Burke once described as its "failure to atone for history in its own sequence".

Over the years, the courts have slowly returned to cases that were either dismissed by racially slanted juries the first time round or never tried at all. The Mississippi Burning killings of three white civil rights workers in 1963 is one, which led to the recent conviction of a former Ku Klux Klan member, and the killing the same year of the voting rights activist Medgar Evers, whose murderer was convicted in 1994.

The Emmett Till case was reopened last year after a powerful television documentary was broadcast in which many of the leading protagonists were reinterviewed. But only two key people are still alive: Mr Loggins and Carolyn Bryant, the store owner's wife who took offence at the over-exuberant attentions of an outgoing kid from the big city up north.

Whatever the outcome of the new investigation, Emmett Till's death will be remembered as a moment when the old South pushed the boundaries too far even by its own shocking racist standards and eventually made way for the integration movement, the voting rights movement and the rise of Martin Luther King.

The murder prompted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to launch a campaign to stir up indignation nationwide at Southern bigotry. One month later, Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of a segregated bus in Selma, Alabama, and a movement was born.