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.