Reopening of Emmett Till case: One question that can’t be answered
When Angela Lewis first saw him, she felt a knot of bitterness tighten in her stomach. He had the same burly build and imposing height, the same buzz cut and the same chubby cheeks stuffed with tobacco.
He was working as a security guard at a mall near her home in Meridian, Mississippi. But Lewis knew him as someone else — the man who murdered the father she never knew.
His name was Lawrence Rainey, and he was one of a group of men arrested in the infamous “Mississippi Burning” murders of three young civil rights activists in 1964. Rainey, who was a Mississippi sheriff at the time of the slayings, was arrested but later acquitted by an all-white jury. He would live openly in Mississippi until his death in 2002 at 79, widely seen as someone who took part in those infamous killings and got away with it.
Lewis was born a week after her father’s killing and didn’t learn about how he died until she was 13. She kept her identity a secret as a young woman. When the murders were brought up in her high school history class, she said nothing.
She did the same whenever she walked by Rainey in the mall.
“I don’t think he ever changed,” said Lewis, who became a nurse and married a police officer. “I don’t think a conversation would have changed him. From what I heard, he still referred to us as n—–s.”
I interviewed Lewis for a book years ago and thought about her story when I heard this week that the federal government had reopened its investigation into the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The black youth, 14, was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
Two men were arrested in Emmett’s slaying but were acquitted less than a month later by an all-white jury. Knowing that double jeopardy laws prohibited them from being tried again, they confessed to the killing a year later in an interview with Look magazine.
Now the Justice Department says it’s reopening the investigation, 63 years after the killing, based on new information: A central witness has apparently changed her story.
Most of the recent stories about Emmett Till focus on the same themes: the legal challenges of resurrecting civil rights cold cases; the relevance of his murder in an era of “Black Lives Matter;” the impact of those grisly open-coffin photos of Emmett on the psyches of African-Americans.
Yet there is another side to stories like Till’s that we rarely talk about:
How did family members cope with the excruciating pain of seeing the killers of their loved ones set free or slapped on the wrists by all-white juries?
And even worse, how did they deal with bumping into these men, over and over, in their communities for years?
‘She had to serve him coffee’
Many Americans assume that the killers of people like Emmett Till were brought to justice. Massive publicity usually surrounded such cases, investigations were launched and, in many cases, people widely knew who the killers were.
The truth is much uglier. Many were celebrated as heroes — pillars of their community — while the family members of the victims were treated like lepers and driven out of their community.
“Towns throughout the South over the last six or seven decades have been well populated by white people who killed black people and got away with it,” says Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist whose podcast, “Buried Truths,” explores unsolved civil rights cold cases.
In one of the most notorious cases, four young black girls were killed in 1963 when Ku Klux Klan members planted sticks of dynamite inside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Investigators soon fingered four suspects, but the FBI closed the case five years later without filing charges. Not until 1977 was one of the suspects tried and convicted of the slayings. Two others were finally convicted in the early 2000s.
Klibanoff recalls one case of a black man who was beaten to death by police in a Southern town. The same sheriff widely known to have committed the murder often visited a cafe where the sister of the black man worked.
“And she had to serve him coffee,” Klibanoff said.
People overlook the psychic toll it took — and still takes — on people like her.
Some coped through their faith.
“It’s what the families themselves brought to it that kept them going in many cases,” Klibanoff said. “It was a deep religious underpinning for some. These are deeply spiritual people. And they’re very much in control of their emotions and have not let their anger eat them alive.”
But it’s not easy always asking victims to take the high road, said Carol Anderson, a historian and author of “White Rage,” a look at civil rights history in the U.S.
“They were seen as upholding their community standards,” she said, referring to people who were either widely suspected of killings or who served paltry jail time for killing blacks during the civil rights movement.
Anderson, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said it’s ironic that African-Americans are often portrayed as people who don’t respect the law.
“But what we see is that the law doesn’t respect us,” she said. “There has been no reckoning, no consequences, no sense that an egregious wrong has been committed.”
One man’s anger
Some people, though, didn’t turn to their faith to cope. They didn’t want to turn the other cheek.
I first heard about Lewis through her uncle, Ben Chaney, younger brother of James Chaney, the civil rights activist slain in Mississippi in in 1964.
When first encountered Chaney in 2002, I met him at the gravesite of his brother in Mississippi. Vandals were still shooting bullet holes in his brother’s headstone over four decades after his murder.
Chaney said people firebombed and shot at his mother’s house so much that she had to move her family to New York City for their safety. At least 18 men were eventually arrested in the murder of his brother — including two sheriffs — but for years no Southern jury would actually convict anyone.
In 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, a former Klansman, was sentenced to a 60-year prison term in 2005 for arranging the murders. He died in prison at age 92.
The absence of justice enraged Chaney when he was a young man. He moved to New York and became a civil rights activist like his slain brother. But he rejected nonviolence.
In April of 1970, he was accompanying a friend on a road trip to Florida to pick up a shipment of guns for a Black Liberation Army Unit when Chaney was implicated in the fatal shootings of four white people. Then 18, he was convicted of three of the killings — charges he still denies years later — and sentenced to life in prison. He served 13 years before former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark interceded and persuaded the parole board to release him.
“There was a period where I felt like I hated mankind,” Chaney told me. “I wanted to vent my hatred and anger on white folks. To me, they were the main perpetrators for evil in the world.”
White families suffered, too
It’s not only blacks who can relate to this kind of suffering. There are also white families who still live with the pain of knowing that the people who took away their loved ones never saw justice.
That’s what happened to the relatives of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife who was killed by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 after she had traveled south to join in civil rights protests.
I talked to Penny Liuzzo Herrington, her daughter, who told me what her family endured. An all-male white jury acquitted four men in Liuzzo’s murder, one of whom was later revealed to be an FBI informant. Another trial took place later and three men were sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating Liuzzo’s civil rights.
The light sentence and what happened to her family after her mother’s death felt like a second death blow, Herrington said.
Hate mail flooded their home. Crosses were burned on their lawn. Her father took up drinking and never recovered. Her two brothers dropped out of high school.
Her youngest sister, Sally, faced her own ordeal. When she went to school after her mother’s death, kids threw stones at her and taunted her. Herrington took her younger sister to her mother’s grave years later, and she erupted in tears.
“She just sobbed on my shoulder, ‘Please tell me what she was like. I don’t remember. Please, I can’t remember her voice.'”
Lewis, James Earl Chaney’s daughter, faced the same challenge with her father. She doesn’t remember him, because she never got to know him.
“I didn’t realize what I missed until I saw my daughter with her daddy,” she told me. “Just to hear her calling him dad and how he’s always there for her — that’s the only time I had that sense of longing.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to like to say, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
But does it bend toward justice for people like Lewis and Herrington?
So much time has passed. Lives have been irreparably damaged. At this point, will justice still be served, or will reopening decades-old cases just remind family members of what they lost?
That’s one question that no new investigation into Emmett Till’s murder can answer.