Emmett Till's Case is Closed, But DOJ Still Investigating Up to 20 Civil Rights-Era Deaths

Although the Department of Justice has closed its revived investigation into the decades-old killing of Emmett Till, agents are still looking into up to 20 other civil rights-era "cold cases."

The DOJ reopened the Till investigation after a key figure was quoted in a 2017 book saying that she lied when saying that the Black teen whistled at her and made sexual advances, an accusation that led to his brutal murder. The department concluded that it could not prove that Carolyn Donham, who is in her 80s, lied in her accusation and did not file any new charges related to his death.

The other civil rights-era cases still under review include the 1970 police killings of six Black men in Augusta, Georgia, according to the DOJ's latest report to Congress. The so-called "Augusta Six—John Bennett, Sammie L. McCullough, Charlie Mack Murphy, James Stokes, Mack Wilson and William Wright Jr.—were killed when the Georgia city was wracked with riots protesting the death of a Black teenager who was beaten to death in the county jail.

"With the Justice Department's stamp on it, even a statement that the killings were wrongful would help even if there's no prosecutions. I think that would be very helpful for the community," said John Hayes of the 1970 Augusta Riot Observance Committee, a group formed to provide education on the event.

The DOJ is also probing the deaths of seven Black men killed amid student protests in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana in the late 1960s and early '70s. Cases related to seven more killings that included a Pennsylvania girl are also being investigated, the DOJ report said.

Till Case Closed
The U.S. Justice Department told relatives of Emmett Till on December 6, 2021, that it is ending its investigation into the 1955 lynching of the Black teenager from Chicago who was abducted, tortured and killed after witnesses said he whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. This undated photo shows Till. AP Photo

Suspects were already tried and acquitted in some of these killings, making prosecution on the same charges all but impossible. Fading memories, lost evidence and the death of potential witnesses almost always pose problems in the quest for justice in decades-old cases.

The Justice Department Cold Case Initiative began in 2006 and was formalized the following year under a law named for Till, whose slaying came to illustrate the depth and brutality of racial hatred in the Jim Crow South. Initially created to investigate other unresolved cases of the civil rights era, it was later expanded to include more recent cases, including killings that occurred in cities and on college campuses during demonstrations against the Vietnam War and racism.

In Augusta, as many as 3,000 people were estimated to have participated in protests and rioting that followed the death of 16-year-old Charles Oatman, who was beaten to death while being held in the jail. Frustration over his death and years of complaints over racial inequity erupted in unrest that left an estimated $1 million in damage across a wide area.

Once the gunfire ended early on May 12, 1970, six Black men were dead from shots fired by police, authorities said. Two white officers were charged, one with killing John Stokes and the other with wounding another person, but both were acquitted by all- or mostly white juries.

Families are still grieving, Hayes said, but the killings generally aren't discussed much in Augusta.

"There's a lot of trauma there and things people don't want to bring up," said Hayes, whose group is in contact with relatives of half the victims.

The other police shootings under review were sparked by campus demonstrations amid simmering resentment over mistreatment of Black people.

Three men were killed on February 8, 1968, during protests to desegregate a bowling alley near South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Nine state police officers were acquitted in what came to be known as the "Orangeburg Massacre," and a campus sports arena now honors the three victims, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith.

Phillip Gibbs and James Earl Green were killed by police during a student demonstration at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 15, 1970, and Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were gunned down during a protest at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on November 16, 1972. No one was ever prosecuted for the killings in Jackson or Baton Rouge.

The seven other cases still under review by the Justice Department span the years 1959 through 1970 and involve individuals. The victims include 9-year-old Donna Reason, killed on May 18, 1970, when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the home of her mixed-race family in Chester, Pennsylvania. No one was ever arrested.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

DOJ Building
Although the Department of Justice has closed its revived investigation into the decades-old killing of Emmett Till, agents are still looking into up to 20 other civil rights-era “cold cases.” Above, the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice building is seen in Washington on May 4, 2021. Patrick Semansky/AP Photo