Director: Keith A. Beauchamp
Studio: Till Freedom Come Productions/THINKfilm TF-54724
Audio: PCM Stereo
Video: 4:3 full screen, color & B&W (DVD & CD-ROM)
Extras: Director’s Commentary, Featurette: “The Impact of the Emmett Till Case on American History and Today,” Trailer Gallery; Separate CD-ROM: Includes six printable lesson plans developed by The Harvard University Civil Rights Project
Length: Approx. 70 minutes
In August, 1955 Mamie Till-Mobley sent her 14-year-old son Emmett Louis Till from their home in Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi. During the course of buying some candy at a local store in the company of two cousins, young Emmett, who was black and had never been to Mississippi, made the fatal mistake of whistling at a young shopkeeper, Carolyn Bryant, who was white. Emmett is described as a fun-loving boy who had no sense of danger and simply did not sufficiently understand the mores of that part of the South, Mississippi being the most repressive of Southern states at that time. In the heartbreaking account, the cousins describe how black visitors from Chicago always prepped for visits to the Deep South to protect themselves. His cousins tried to keep an eye on him and one of them remarks in the film, “There was no way we could have predicted that whistle.”
Three days after the innocent flirtation Emmett was abducted from the home of his great uncle, and for his offense, tortured in unspeakable ways and killed. Although the two men primarily responsible, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, were brought to trial, an all-male, all-white Mississippi jury found them not guilty. Though their guilt was obvious, it is astonishing that four months later they sold their confession to Look Magazine for $4000, knowing they could not be retried. This hard hitting documentary, filled with compelling interviews and archival footage should be seen by everyone. It contains unprecedented accounts by witnesses never before heard from.
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till is the result of 10 years of exhaustive and painstaking work by Keith Beauchamp, who directed and produced the film, just released on DVD by THINKfilm. Through extensive interviews and research Beauchamp uncovered sufficient information for the Justice Department to open a new criminal investigation in 2004. Indictments are possible at this time. Though Bryant and Milam are dead, there were others who assisted them the night of the murder. Beauchamp’s research pointed to as many as 14 persons involved in Emmett Till’s abduction and murder, five of whom are still alive. A warrant was issued for Carolyn Bryant’s arrest but was never acted on. Mrs. Bryant is believed to have been in the car that night and identified Emmett as “the boy from Chicago.” She is now around 70 years old. What the murder of Emmett Till did was to show the world the extent and enormity of this country’s racial subordination before the civil rights movement. Lynchings in the South were much more commonplace than most people knew.
Mamie Till-Mobley endeavored for 47 years before her death in 2003 to get the case of her son reopened. Mrs. Mobley was courageous in her decision to have an open casket so the world could see what was done to her son. When she announced her intention to attend the trial, she and her mother were sent numerous threatening letters. At the trial and outside the courthouse she was treated disdainfully by the white onlookers and by the court system officials. She allowed Jet Magazine to publish a photo of her son’s body at the funeral which was seen around the world. Footage of the funeral is shown – 50,000 attended. The essence of this remarkable woman is beautifully revealed – to observe her grace and dignity and courage is inspiring. The filmmaker credits her with his becoming the activist that he is.
What makes this film so compelling are two things: the presentation of Emmett Till as a beautiful, innocent boy – much information is presented about what he was like as a lovely human being in his brief life as well as the way in which his brutal murder sparked the American civil rights movement. It is absolutely chilling to watch the Jim Crow atmosphere of Mississippi in the 1950s, particularly as reflected in the archival footage of court events, interviews with local figures involved with the trial and the general behavior of the white people present. There was great hostility toward the reporters by the townspeople who questioned their making a “big deal.” One of them recalls the local white populace believed Milam and Bryant were indeed guilty but did not want them punished.
Beauchamp points out that many do not understand the extent of the rule of the Klan and other groups such as the White Citizens Council in Mississippi before the civil rights movement. The two cousins, Simeon Wright and Rev. Wheeler Parker, 12 and 16 at the time, were in the house the night of Emmett’s abduction. They discuss the enormous despair and pain in the house after the boy was taken. Emmett’s great uncle and his wife pleaded with Bryant and Milam not to take the child away but to no avail. Simeon Wright describes the long night of thinking every car that drove by was Emmett being returned after a beating by his kidnappers but by morning, he realized that Emmett would not be coming back. Though understanding the horror of this event, many people over the years judged this family harshly for somehow not preventing the taking of Emmett that night. As Beauchamp states in his illuminating commentary, this was “true home terrorism.”
The star witness, Mose Wright – Emmett’s great uncle – was the first man in Mississippi to testify against a white man and live. It was considered suicide to testify against a white man in Mississippi. What probably saved his life was getting out of Mississippi shortly after the trial with his family to relocate to Chicago. Another key witness was Willie Reed, featured in the film, who was an 18-year-old sharecropper who also left for Chicago shortly after the trial.
The behavior of the white populace and officials during the court proceedings is incredible to see. It is difficult to fathom this mindset of malice and ignorance.
Many black reporters helped with the investigation. Beauchamps calls them “true soldiers of that time.” Medger Evers’ investigation of the case contributed to his murder. The NAACP’s secret investigation which brought eye witnesses forward to testify helped immeasurably in getting the case finally reopened. President Eisenhower was strongly urged to recommend anti-lynching laws to be enacted at the federal level, but he did not.
A few words on the special features: In addition to the Director’s Commentary which is an absorbing educational addition to this riveting film, there is also a featurette – a panel discussion about the social and political context of the time, the impact of the case on African Americans and the nation as a whole and ways issues in the case are relevant today. The Harvard Civil Rights Project, a think tank founded in 1996, has been very active in developing forums for building informed consensus among those working to advance racial and ethnic justice. The separate cross-platform CD-ROM has a pdf file of six printable lesson plans for use in Social Studies, Government, Law, Citizenship, African-American Studies, Geography and Media classes. Among the titles are The Southern All-White Jury System, Jim Crow, and Case Study of Hurricane Katrina.
– Donna Dorsett