Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 5, 2005
On June 1, the NY Times reported that Emmett Till’s body was being exhumed as part of a reopening of an investigation into his murder. The article stated that “Federal interest in the case was heightened more recently by a documentary, as well as the long-lost trial transcript. Its discovery was announced this spring” and concluded with the following paragraph:
Reached by phone in New York, Keith Beauchamp, the documentary filmmaker who helped reignite interest in the case, said that he believed authorities were now on the right track. “What good is the legacy of Emmett Till,” he asked, “if you cannot find the truth?”
Yesterday I had the good fortune to attend a press screening of Beauchamp’s documentary at the Film Forum in NYC which has scheduled the film for August (http://www.filmforum.org/films/untold.html). The director introduced the film with a stirring tribute to Emmett Till’s mother, who died two years ago–before the Department of Justice announced that it was reopening the case.
This is the second documentary that I have seen about the case of Emmett Till. The first, which appeared on PBS, prompted me to write the following:
In the summer of 1955 a 14 year old African-American from Chicago went to visit his uncle Moses Wright in the Mississippi delta, where he eked out a living picking cotton. Emmett’s mother Mamie Till, who died recently, warned him not to look at white women there and to get off the sidewalk if he saw one approaching.
Born in 1941, Emmett Till was a high-spirited youth with none of the submissive attitudes associated with growing up in the South. But he made a fatal mistake. When in the nearby village of Money, Mississippi to buy a soft drink at Roy Bryant’s grocery store, he whistled at the man’s wife.
That night Bryant and his hulking brother-in-law J. W. Milam descended on the Wright household and seized Emmett Till at gunpoint. They drove him back to their own place and beat him beyond recognition. They then drove him to the nearby Tallahatchie River, tied a heavy cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw him in the water. But only after firing a bullet into his head–he was still alive at this point.
Perhaps if Till had been a native Mississippian, the case would have not gained the notoriety it did. But his mother was determined to confront the racist system that had taken her son’s life. Her first act was to put her son’s battered body on display at a local church, where thousands of people witnessed the effects of the sadistic beating. Since Mrs. Till had refused to allow the mortician to clean up the damage, those in the procession were shocked to see one eyeball hanging down the side of his face and a nose battered beyond recognition. A photo of the disfigured youth not only appeared on the front pages of black newspapers in the USA, it was featured prominently on front pages all over the world.
When the killers came to trial, most people did not expect a fair trial since the jury was composed exclusively of white men from the county. Mamie Till and her associates did not even bother to wait for the verdict since they knew it would be a foregone conclusion. When she wrote President Eisenhower a telegram demanding a federal investigation, he did not even reply. But an aroused black population was not ready to accept this state of affairs, even if the murderers could not be brought to justice. Just 100 days later Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus and the rest was history. As the PBS website recounts:
Other local leaders courageously stepped forward after the Till murder. Physician and civil rights leader Dr. T. R. M. Howard of the small, all-black Delta town of Mound Bayou was already known in Mississippi for his activism. Howard, whose life had been repeatedly threatened, had armed bodyguards to protect him and his family. During the trial, Howard extended this protection to the black witnesses and to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley. After they testified, Howard, Medgar Evers and other NAACP officials helped the black witnesses slip out of town.
After Till’s murderers, J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were acquitted, Howard boldly and publicly chastised FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s getting to be a strange thing that the FBI can never seem to work out who is responsible for the killings of Negroes in the South.” In December 1955, after the national black magazine Ebony reported that Dr. Howard was on the Ku Klux Klan’s death list and that several others on the list had already been killed, Howard sold most of his property in Mound Bayou, packed up his family and relocated to Chicago.
Momentum for a Movement
For Dr. Howard and others, the immediate impact of the acquittal of Till’s killers was increased repression in Mississippi. Still, the momentum and mobilization that followed Till’s murder fed the next stage of the movement. One hundred days after Emmett’s death, a black woman, Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus and was arrested for violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws. The Women’s Democratic Council, under Jo Ann Robinson, called for a citywide bus boycott and asked a young, 26-year-old minister to help.
His name was Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Both documentaries are very strong. For those who missed the PBS presentation, the film can be ordered from their website in DVD or VHS for $29.95 and $24.95 respectively. It is highly suitable for classroom presentations.
For New Yorkers, a visit to the Film Forum to see Beauchamp’s film would be time well spent. It is an extremely moving presentation of this turning point in American history. Keith Beauchamp’s involvement with the Emmett Till is a story in itself, as this interview with New England Film magazine would indicate:
A photograph of that ghastly image first caught filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s attention; when he was a ten-year-old boy being raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It shocked me,” says Beauchamp, now 33, who found the image in an old copy of Jet Magazine, “I was looking on one side [of the magazine] and here was this angelic face of Emmett Till, and on the other side was this disfigured face of Emmett Till. I couldn’t believe that someone that young could be killed for whistling at a white woman. But, I don’t think I really understood at the time what this picture was really about. I didn’t understand the depth of it.”
Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried for the murder of Emmett Till, and subsequently acquitted by an all white jury. The case has been considered closed ever since.
Since the age of 10, Keith Beauchamp has dedicated himself to serving justice for Emmett Till.
“I was blessed to have parents who instilled in me the education that they felt was needed for me to understand society,” says Beauchamp, “The Emmett Till case is very deeply embedded in the African-American male psyche; it was something that was mentioned to me all the time, to teach me about the racism that still existed in America. I grew up in the Deep South. My parents wanted to keep me aware, to be careful, so they would often tell me, ‘don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you’.”
He came close to meeting a similar fate, however. In 1989, eight years after seeing Emmett’s body for the first time, Beauchamp attended a nightclub with some friends. He hadn’t been there long when he was accosted by a bouncer, then dragged outside by an unknown man who began throwing punches. Beauchamp fought back, though the situation proved even uglier when the stranger revealed himself to be an undercover police officer. Beauchamp was promptly arrested. His alleged crime? Dancing with a white girl.
After being dragged to the station, handcuffed to a chair, and kicked to the floor to endure more beatings, Beauchamp was finally asked for identification. He was released only when the detective on duty realized that Beauchamp was close friends with the son of a Major with the Sheriff’s Department.
“Living in the Deep South, where real racism exists, you feel like you’re invincible, and that’s how I felt. I was a kid, I was just having fun. Even though I was dating, and things of that nature, there was nothing serious for me. It was just having relationships and having a good time. A lot of things kept bringing Emmett Till up in my head, because I was so close to being Emmett Till himself.”
Beauchamp spent a few years studying Criminal Justice at Southern University, but left school before graduation to pursue a career in entertainment in New York. His first job was writing music videos with a production company owned by some friends. But it wasn’t the right fit. He began to develop a feature film about the boy whose face had haunted him since his youth. Knowing he would need to gather some facts to beef up a screenplay, he casually launched into production of a documentary, meant to serve as a tool for garnering supplemental information.