A greater place to live


"'Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago, when a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door. This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well, the color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till. Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up. They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what. They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat. … This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man that this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan. But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give, we could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.”

Those are words to a Bob Dylan song about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was abducted and killed in 1955. While written in 1962, his death still resonates more than 60 years later. And it still remains shrouded in questions; questions that have apparently prompted the Justice Department to re-open the investigation, based on new information it received.

Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi, when he went into a store and encountered a white woman who would later complain that the 14-year-old grabbed her and made crude sexual remarks. He was kidnapped and killed some days later, a crime for which no one has ever been convicted. Two white men confessed to a magazine that they in fact killed Till, after an all-white jury acquitted them. In the meantime, the woman who made the allegations, who is still alive, has acknowledged that her story was not true (in a book by Timothy B. Tyson, “The Blood of Emmett Till”), and has been quoted as saying, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” One of the men tried was the woman’s husband at the time, along with his half-brother.

This isn’t the first time the Till case has been re-opened. In 2004, federal prosecutors determined that the statute of limitations had run on any charges they could file in federal court, and a state grand jury failed to return indictments. The new information has not been revealed, but whether it leads to new charges or a conviction for this crime is doubtful. Possible suspects have died, statutes of limitations have likely expired.

Some might ask, then why re-open the case? Even if no one is ever brought to justice for this heinous crime, it is important that Americans know that racially motivated violence, or any hate crime, will not be tolerated. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama recently introduced legislation that would make the government release information about unsolved civil rights killings. The families who have lived with these questions deserve nothing less.

Deborah Watts, Emmett Till’s cousin, wrote in an op-ed for USA Today recently, “Our patience has worn thin. Time is up! We have spent many sleepless nights thinking of ways to move justice forward for Emmett. With thousands of questions remaining unanswered and with the blessings of the next of kin in our family, I’d like to share just a few of our questions and concerns with you and urge for your immediate support: Will there ever be justice for Emmett? ... Is Donham (his accuser) above the law? Does she never have to answer for being an accomplice in Emmett’s kidnapping and murder? Or be held accountable today for the appropriate charges?”

At a minimum, Congress could pass anti-lynching legislation in memory of Till, and other victims. Lawmakers have tried numerous times to address lynching on a federal level, and have failed. There is no reason for the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 not to be enacted. Lynching should be a federal crime, and this legislation is proposed by Democratic and Republican senators (Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tim Scott). It’s the least we can do, as a nation, to “make this great land of ours a greater place to live.”


Janet Johnson is a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville who practices in state and federal courts. White collar crimes, including fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion, are among her areas of expertise. She is rated AV Preeminent on attorney rating website Martindale-Hubbell and has been named to the American Institute of Criminal Law Attorneys’ Top 10 Best Attorneys list. Johnson is also a legal analyst for CNN and HLN.