The summer before 14-year-old Trent Lott entered all-white Pascagoula High School in Mississippi, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till convinced his mother to let him go down South to try cotton-picking with his cousins.
“Bo,” she said to her naïve son, unaware of the ways of the South, “if you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her.” But just about a week after Till arrived at his great-uncle’s home in Money, Mississippi, that summer of 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley got word that her only child may have whistled at or insulted a white woman clerking at the Bryant store in town, and was missing, assumedly kidnapped. A few days later, Till’s grotesquely disfigured body, with one eye dangling down the cheek, a smashed nose, a bullethole through his ax-sliced head and a “choked-out” tongue, washed ashore in the Tallahatchie River.
Mobley insisted on opening her son’s casket to the public and media, horrifying Northern blacks and whites; the tragedy helped inspire Rosa Parks to refuse to move to the back of the bus, kicking off the Montgomery bus boycott and helping spark the onset of the civil rights movement.
Two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (whose wife was the one allegedly insulted), were arrested and charged with Till’s murder. Despite dramatic testimony by Till’s great uncle, Mose Wright, in which he identified both men as the ones who took Till from Wright’s home in the middle of the night, and despite the testimony of Willie Reed, a young black plantation hand who told the court that he saw Milam leave a barn from which he had heard screams, an all-white Mississippi jury unapologetically set the defendants free. Furthermore, a subsequent grand jury refused to indict them for kidnapping. Four months after the trial, though, both men confessed their guilt in the murder to a reporter from Look magazine for $4,000: “I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble,” Milam is quoted as saying he told Till just before he shot him. “I’m going to make an example of you–just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.” Since the men were protected from further prosecution, an FBI investigation was the last hope for justice, but President Eisenhower refused to give the go-ahead. And the case has been closed ever since.
Yet there may be a new chance that justice can be served, based on information emerging from a trio of documentary filmmakers investigating the case. First-time filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s research into the history of the case and the simultaneous release of another Till film, made by award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, have kicked up interest both at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and in the Mississippi Attorney General’s office. A third documentary still in the works, by Rhode Island filmmaker Gode Davis, on lynching in America, has turned up even more intriguing leads. While the Trent Lott episode reminded America of its living legacy of racism, these first two substantial documentaries on Till’s murder have had early screenings in New York, reminding us that one or more of the boy’s killers may still be alive, carrying a burden of their own.
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A half-century later, the filmmakers have interviewed witnesses who said there were more than two men involved in the Till murder. Christoher Metress, a professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, has also edited a book, just published, The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, the first collection of journalistic accounts from the time of the killing. The presentation organizes facts and recollections that provide strong historical support for reopening the case. This means the era’s last high-profile unsolved murder has a chance of being legally re-examined and perhaps finally resolved.
Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said his organization would consider entering the case “if asked by the family or anyone who has a role in it,” and Beauchamp has taken on that role. Shaw said that while it’s not really its role to press for reopening criminal investigations, the organization has responded to such requests in the past. He cited the Vernon Dahmer case in Mississippi–the notorious 1966 fatal firebombing of the home of a voter-registration activist–in which a belated conviction was obtained, in part because the fund pushed hard for justice, pressuring the authorities. Referring to Till’s murder as “one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era,” Shaw said that “it may very well be possible to have a successful prosecution” still. He added that “if any of them [the participants] are alive, they should be prosecuted.”
Mississippi Assistant Attorney General Frank Spencer recently affirmed that the new information coming forward could result in a reopening of the case. “We welcome any evidence from any source that would let us know what happened there,” he said. Special Assistant to the Attorney General Jonathan Compretta agreed to have a conference call on January 6 with Beauchamp, Mamie Till-Mobley and Alvin Sykes, president of the Justice Campaign of America, as a possible first step. Unfortunately, Till-Mobley died that very day of heart failure, on the eve of a visit to Atlanta for an appearance with Beauchamp. She was 81.
The filmmakers Beauchamp and Nelson share similar conclusions about the circumstances surrounding Till’s murder and have a desire to see the killers brought to justice. But they differ dramatically in their own relationship to the Till case and in their approach to documentary storytelling.
Beauchamp, 31, grew up in Louisiana with the Emmett Till story etched into his sense of the world, like many Southern blacks. “I remember the day I saw Jet magazine’s reprint of Emmett Till’s photo, and I was devastated,” he said. “I thought about him almost every day of my life.” Wishing to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else–“If we forget our past, history will repeat itself,” Beauchamp says–he hopes that his film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, will be an educational tool to enlighten a new generation.
Beauchamp’s dedication has paid off in many ways: He located and earned the trust of traumatized black witnesses from Mississippi’s back country who haven’t spoken of the case in nearly fifty years. They spoke primarily about what happened at the store in Money, about Emmett’s being taken from Wright’s home, and about the beating of Till in a barn before he was killed. They did not deal substantively with the issue of other perpetrators. Beauchamp also captured on film the dark, eerie nights of Mississippi back country that still reek of slavery’s legacy. Because of his desire to connect deeply with sources in the film, Beauchamp has also inadvertently created a lovely tribute to Mobley, who opens the film with a story of Emmett Till’s difficult birth, and who navigates us through much of the film.
Beauchamp has much difficulty contextualizing sources and developments, and he fails to provide subtitles when the accents of speakers become unintelligible; he also has sound-mixing problems throughout the film. But he compensates for his lack of sophistication with the relentless and passionate pursuit of frightened and elusive people to interview. In the end, the young filmmaker produced a heart-wrenching, unsettling documentary, exemplified in the last moments of the film when Beauchamp reads a poem that he wrote as he holds the camera on Emmett Till’s grave: “Now it’s all over. Yes over for me, but not for my brothers and sisters who are still living with this hell on earth. I must say to you: You may kill the body of the movement, but not the spirit.”
In stark contrast, Nelson, a well-seasoned filmmaker, has made in The Murder of Emmett Till a seamless, easy-to-follow, beautifully shot film (financed by PBS, it is to air January 20). This carefully narrated work opens with news footage shot in Mississippi just weeks before Till’s arrival; it depicts worsening race relations, highly politicized lynchings and an excerpt from a state-funded propaganda tape about the virtue of segregation. Nelson then underlines Till’s vulnerability by bringing us quickly to clips of blacks and whites dancing together in Chicago. Nelson’s film is filled with metaphors, visual storytelling, smooth transitions and evocative cinematography depicting the brutal and lush heat of the Delta. While the film does touch on the possibility of reopening the case, it is primarily a historic re-creation, not a cinematic investigation. But Nelson, whose film will be shown at this year’s Sundance film festival, says he’ll put increasing focus on the reopening issue.
Given the publicity surrounding Beauchamp’s and Nelson’s films, it’s ironic that the chances of reopening the Till case may hinge most on the potential journalistic breakthrough of a third filmmaker, Gode Davis. Davis has been working for five years on an ambitious documentary on lynching in America. He told us he’s interviewed a white man in Mississippi who told a convincing story of his alleged participation in the Till murder. Davis will not identify the man or pinpoint his location other than to say that after his wife died about six months ago, he moved from “out in the sticks” to a “residential neighborhood” somewhere in Mississippi.
Davis also claims to know the identity of, and plans to interview, an Atlanta-area man, also white, about his possible involvement in Till’s murder. And the filmmaker says he’s in touch with yet a third white man, Billy Wilson, who claims to have been a witness to Till’s brutal killing but did not participate in it. Beauchamp obtained a 1970 newspaper story from the Mississippi Southern Patriot in which a man by that name is said “by blacks to brag about being one of the killers of Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Miss.”
Davis said Wilson lives about thirty miles from the alleged participant in Till’s murder and expresses regret for the atrocities he claims to have witnessed forty-seven years ago. “Wilson told me that some of the things that happened that night, he would not have done them,” Davis said. “He said there were some things he would not wish on that boy.” Davis, who has seen neither Beauchamp’s nor Nelson’s film, is reluctant to identify the two other possible white perpetrators–whom he stumbled onto while working on his lynching project–to fellow journalists or law enforcement officials. His concern is that investigators looking into Till’s case might subpoena his notes and effectively short-circuit the project.
Whatever Davis has or doesn’t have on tape–he says he has the witness on audio–is especially important because of what both Beauchamp and Nelson lack in their films: Both included references to the possibility of the involvement of other whites in Till’s murder, but Beauchamp chose not to use the supportive evidence he has, at least in an early version of his film. He makes no reference to the widely held belief that Milam’s dead brother, Leslie, was involved; and he cut a possibly significant quote from his interview with Ruthie Mae Crawford, a friend of Till’s who, along with seven others, accompanied him on his fateful visit to the Bryant store in Money in August 1955, where the alleged insult of Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, who was behind the counter, took place.
Crawford told Beauchamp she saw a caravan of cars–“My Lord, look at all the cars!”–pull into the property of Till’s great uncle, Mose Wright, the night the young Chicagoan was kidnapped from Wright’s home. Other accounts have referred to just one vehicle, occupied by Milam and Bryant and, perhaps, blacks who were forced to help them.
At least five of the newspaper articles Metress collected in his book made allusions to the existence of other participants in the murder. For example, in an open letter written to the US Attorney General and J. Edgar Hoover by James Hicks, a Baltimore Afro-American reporter covering the trial, reads:
Go to [Henry] Loggins’ father [a black man employed by Milam]. Press him. He will be reluctant to talk and when you finally hear his story you will easily understand why he is reluctant to talk. But when you finally get his story, he will tell you that his son Henry has confessed to him that he was on the murder truck the night Emmett Till was killed. He can tell you that his son has named to him the four more white men–instead of two–who were involved in the kidnapping or murder.
In addition, on September 10, 1955, two reporters for the Chicago Defender quoted Till’s 16-year-old cousin, Wheeler Parker, who had gone down to Mississippi with Till that summer: “Parker said he was in the next room when three men came for Bo that Sunday morning.” A little later that month, the Jackson State Times printed excerpts of Reed’s testimony in which he said: “I saw four white men in the cab and three colored men in the back. One was sitting on the bottom and the others sat on the side of the body.” Dr. T.R.M. Howard, head of the Mississippi Regional Council of Negro Leadership, devoted his days during that time to finding and interviewing witnesses in the Till case. Based on his research, a black columnist wrote in a pamphlet for his organization: “There were four white men in the cab, all of whom appeared to have been under the influence of intoxicating liquor.”
While Beauchamp gingerly sidestepped the question of reopening the case, he included a lengthy interview with Henry Loggins, now living in Dayton, Ohio, and never before interviewed about the case. Loggins repeatedly denied to Beauchamp that he was present during the abduction of Till. But such testimony should not be a deterrent to those pressing for further investigation. “Even if reopening the case proves difficult,” said Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, “there’s a larger obligation involved–a necessity to pursue the truth about Till. America wants to know what happened, and who was responsible for this terrible deed.”