WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department is reopening the murder investigation of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager killed during a 1955 visit to Mississippi apparently because he whistled at a white man's wife.
The murder was an early spark for the civil rights movement. The only two people ever charged in the case, the husband of the woman Till purportedly whistled at and his half brother, were acquitted by an all-white jury, although they later admitted to the killing in a magazine interview. Both are dead.
R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said recent documentary films about the case and other new information indicate the two had accomplices who may still be alive and could be prosecuted under Mississippi state law. "We owe it to Emmett Till and we owe it to ourselves to see whether after all these years, some additional measure of justice remains possible," Acosta said at a press conference.
The decision follows a lengthy campaign by the NAACP, members of Congress, and Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to get the Justice Department to reopen the case. Mobley, who died in Chicago last year at age 81, is widely credited with generating attention for her son's murder by showing his battered body in an open casket at his funeral.
Airickca Gordon, a cousin of Till's who was close to his mother, said the family was elated at the news. "Even though she's now deceased, I feel her spirit will be so much at peace," Gordon said.
The Till case gave many Americans a closer look at the segregated South, its Jim Crow laws, and lynchings. The slaying occurred a little over a year after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed state-sponsored school segregation and about 100 days before seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the white section of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.
Till was visiting relatives when he was abducted from his uncle's home in Money, Miss., on Aug. 28, 1955, a few days after allegedly whistling at Carolyn Bryant at her family's store. The 14-year-old's mutilated body was found by fishermen three days later in the Tallahatchie River.
Wheeler Parker Jr., now 65, was with Till the night he was abducted.
"They came about three days later for Emmett," he said in a telephone interview from Argo, Ill., where he is pastor of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ. "They came into the house and I could hear them talking outside. There were six boys in the house that night in four bedrooms. They came into my room first and I was terrified, knowing we were going to die. When you went South, you had no protection. We couldn't call anyone for help. I was literally shaking in my bed. I was not ready to die at 16. Someone came up to me with a flashlight and a pistol. Then they left.
"They found Emmett in the third bedroom and roused him up. They were cursing, and they led him out of the house. He had no idea what he was facing, and I had no idea where they were taking him. But I did for certain hear someone ask another person, 'Is this him?' So we know there was more than one person involved. Throughout the years, people from the town told us that there were others in the truck that night. There was a girl who came forward to tell us that her uncle was forced to take part and he later lost his mind over it," Parker said.
"Emmett's mom would be so pleased to hear the case is being reopened. Up until the last two years of her life, she rarely talked about it."
Carolyn Bryant's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J. W. Milam, were acquitted by a jury that deliberated 67 minutes. The Justice Department never investigated the case despite appeals from Till's mother and others.
In 1956, Look magazine published an account of the slaying in which Milam admitted he and Bryant were guilty. They could not be tried again for murder because the Constitution bars prosecutors from trying someone a second time for the same crime.
In the article, Milam recounted the incident that led to Till's murder.
" 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble,' " Milam was quoted as saying. " 'I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.' "
Milam said he beat Till and shot him in the head with a .45-caliber pistol, then used barbed wire to tie a heavy metal fan around Till's neck and dumped the body in the river. No other accomplices were mentioned.
Stanley Nelson, producer and director of the PBS documentary, "The Murder of Emmett Till," said in a telephone interview yesterday that several witnesses with whom he spoke indicated others were involved. Most of those witnesses, Nelson said, were not contacted by authorities at the time.
"We started to find people who had things to say, who should have testified at the trial," Nelson said. "It was never really investigated. At least we can get some kind of closure."
Another documentary filmmaker, Keith A. Beauchamp, found evidence after examining the case for nine years for "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." He believes as many as seven additional people may have been involved, many of them still alive.
The five-year statute of limitations in effect in 1955 means no federal charges could be brought but state charges may still apply, Acosta said. The FBI and Justice Department prosecutors will work on the investigation with Joyce Chiles, district attorney for Mississippi's Fourth Judicial District.
Other civil rights-era killings in Mississippi have been reopened with mixed results. In 1994, Byron de la Beckwith was convicted of the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. But there has been little progress in an effort to bring murder charges for the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss. Those killings were chronicled in the film "Mississippi Burning."
The Justice Department in 2003 won a conviction against Ernest Henry Avants for his involvement in the 1966 murder in Mississippi of Ben Chester White, a black sharecropper. Avants, a reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan, was sentenced to life in prison.
Globe correspondent Lori Rotenberk contributed to this report from Chicago.