MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Before there was the talk, the conversation black parents have quietly had with their sons about how to avoid violent or upsetting encounters with police, there was the talk about Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955, when a white woman accused him of whistling at her and making other sexual advances. He was kidnapped, viciously beaten and murdered. Two white men were acquitted of his murder, but his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral caused Emmett Till’s death to serve as a powerful testimony both to the viciousness of white supremacy and the strength and the resiliency of those who resisted it. Still, no one has ever been held accountable for Emmett Till’s death.
On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department has alerted Congress that it has re-opened the investigation, citing new information. We wanted to talk about that, so we’ve called Deborah Watts. She is a cousin of Emmett Till as well as co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. Deborah Watts, thanks so much for talking with us.
DEBORAH WATTS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, you know, people have known for years that the two men accused of the murder eventually confessed in a Look magazine interview. And it’s hard to read, you know, even now. I mean, it – they make it very clear why they killed him, which is to keep black people in a state of terror. But they’re both now dead. And then more recently, the woman who accused Emmett Till told a historian that the most incendiary parts of her allegations weren’t true. So what would justice look like for you and for your family now?
WATTS: This is an opportunity for the truth to be told. You know, we’d love to have Carolyn Bryant to share her story publicly or to even have a conversation with our family, and specifically to share the truth with the authorities as this investigation moves forward. The wound is very, very deep. You know, the country and the Emmett Till generation, along with our family and others – this has impacted, you know, not only those of us in America, but across the world. So I think not only our family, but I think the public and relatives, other supporters and activists and others are just – we’re just holding our breath that the right will be done.
MARTIN: You said that this has had a major impact on your family, and certainly it has had a major impact, you know, on the country. But I’d like to ask you what you think the legacy of his mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral was. What impact do you think that had on the country?
WATTS: Oh, gosh. I think it was a huge wake-up call. It was like an alarm. You know, many individuals, particularly in the South, were living under this terror and terroristic act. Many young men, other young men, well before Emmett were taken, beaten, killed. There are probably bodies and the blood spilled of many others in Mississippi, Florida and Georgia, and other places that are like Emmett’s that are still there. And so, what this did, it was a wake-up call to not only our country, but to the world that, wow, this is what’s happening. This is the face of what hate looks like in our country, and what are we going to do about it?
MARTIN: Well, that’s Deborah Watts. She’s a co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. She’s a cousin of Emmett Till’s, and she’s kind enough to talk to us from Mississippi. Thanks so much for talking with us.
WATTS: Thank you.
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