Emmett Till's cousin: 'Very grateful' for newly signed law but 'it doesn't stop our fight'

With the existing racial climate, I think it will help us amplify just how important it is to right the wrongs of the past, and to continue advocating for justice for modern-day lynchings.

Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Louis Till, has been working for years to bring justice for her cousin. She said she is also honoring Till's mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who died in 2003, by keeping the fight going. Till, a Black teenager, was killed in 1955, accused of flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in rural Mississippi. He was 14. Bryant's husband and her husband's half-brother were tried and acquitted of the vicious attack. Till had been, among other things, beaten and dumped in a river.

Till's murder is one of many incidents that pushed the nation's civil rights movement forward – just as the murder of unarmed Black man George Floyd, caught on video in 2020, sparked a new wave of strong, international protest to police brutality. 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, and Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was there to witness it. 

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In 1955, at the age of 14, while visiting family in Mississippi, Emmett Till was dragged out of bed, tortured and killed by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. They then dumped his body in a river. All of this over allegations that he flirted with a white woman.

She recorded her reaction for USA TODAY Opinion and also discussed the signing of the legislation and how she hopes it will push the modern-day civil rights movement forward. 

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity, accuracy and grammar.   

How will the Emmett Till Antilynching Act help further today's civil rights fight? 

I think it will help connect the past to the present. With the existing racial climate that we have, I think it will help us amplify just how important it is to right the wrongs of the past, and to continue advocating for justice for modern-day lynchings that are occurring. There is just a strong throughline: Black lives didn't matter then and in some instances they don't matter today. We have to make the connections and point to the Black and brown bodies that are still experiencing similar injustices. Our voices aren't necessarily being heard. We are trying to use the laws that are on the books. That's not always working. In Ahmaud Arbery's case, his family had to push to demand that justice prevail.  

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As with our family, even though these incidents are happening 67 years apart, we're still using that same method that Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett Till's mother) used, and that is opening the casket so that our country can understand the kind of hatred that is brought upon our people. We still have to keep focused, we have to push, we have to make sure that our voices are heard. We have to make sure that we're clear about what we expect. We have really tried to be respectful to the laws that are on the books today. Those have not applied to Black and brown bodies. 

President Joe Biden signs Emmett Till Antilynching Bill into law

What is it that the law does? 

It makes lynching a (hate) crime at the federal level. There's severe punishment –  30 years maximum sentence – that can be brought against someone who is accused and tried and convicted. It is the first step of righting a wrong, and is just slightly removing a stain that has happened. It's a step forward, but it's still not enough. We still have a lot more work to do. I have to think about the sacrifices of all those (thousands) who have been lynched in our country and all of those families who have never gotten justice. I hope this is also a step in the right direction, for the more than 150 names that are on the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act list. There are wives, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren who are still pursuing justice for their loved ones. Some have given up hope, but we haven't given up hope. We want them to get the chance to amplify their voices around the lynchings of their loved ones and use this law to pursue justice. 

I am also pushing for a bill in Minnesota that is called the Emmett Louis Till Victims Recovery Program. It is basically to provide health, wellness and mental-health therapy for victims and the families of victims of government-sponsored activities that have caused harm. I'm hoping that bill can be an example in other states where lynchings have occurred. I'm hoping those families can push forward that kind of legislation in their states also. 

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Will the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, ultimately, help bring justice for your family? 

Our hope is that this bill leads to what we've been demanding all along, and that is that the local authorities in Mississippi charge Carolyn Bryant (who later became Carolyn Bryant Donham) as an accomplice in the kidnapping and lynching of Emmett Louis Till. Certainly we feel very grateful that the signing has occurred. It does provide some sense of solace to those families whose lives were sacrificed. I think at the same time for us and our family, we need to remind the president, vice president and the Department of Justice that there has not been any accountability for the person who this bill was named after. Although this bill has been signed in Emmett Till's name, it can't be connected to any accountability or justice for him, and it doesn't stop our fight.

Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY Opinion. Follow her on Twitter: @msdc14.