Revisiting a painful crossroads in race relations

Brutal Miss. murder of Emmett Till, 14, is focus of new report

Television

October 24, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There are no shocking revelations or deathbed confessions in tonight's 60 Minutes report on an infamous 50-year-old civil rights case. Yet, the double-length segment focusing on the 1955 murder in Mississippi of 14-year-old Emmett Till is a reminder of how valuable a repository of national memory and voice of social conscience television news can be when its makers try.

Till, an ebullient teenager who lived with his mother in Chicago, came to visit relatives in Money, Miss., in the summer of 1955. One evening in August, he and a cousin entered a roadside store, Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, where he had a fateful encounter with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who was working behind the counter.

On his way out of the store after buying some candy, Till allegedly either whistled at the woman or said, "Bye, baby." Three nights later, the woman's husband, Roy Bryant, and at least one other man, J.W. Milam, came looking for Till.

Till's mutilated body was found a few days later in the Tallahatchie River. One eye was gouged out, an ear was missing, one side of his skull was crushed, and there was a bullet hole in the other side of his head. A 75-pound cotton gin fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire.

Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who died last year, insisted on an open coffin at her son's Chicago funeral so that everyone could see what happened to the teenager. A photograph of his horribly disfigured corpse appeared in Jet magazine, and became a touchstone for many African-Americans, with some parents showing the image to their children to explain Southern racism and its effects. Till's death, funeral and the image of his corpse helped ignite the civil rights movement.

Back in Mississippi in 1955, however, it took only an hour and seven minutes for an all-white jury to find Milam and Bryant innocent of the crime. Two months after the trial, the men confessed to the murder during a Look magazine story for which they were paid $4,000.

So, why report the story now with a segment twice the normal length, no less?

Last year, though both Milam and Bryant are dead, the Justice Department reopened an investigation into Till's death. It did so in large part on the basis of research into the case by Keith A. Beauchamp, a documentary filmmaker from Louisiana now living in Brooklyn. Tonight's 60 Minutes report follows leads suggested by Beauchamp in his film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. One of the most intriguing is that it wasn't just Bryant and Milam; there might have been as many as 14 men and women involved in Till's murder - black and white.

"It seems clear that black men were involved," CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley says in the report.

Bradley tracks down one African-American man, 81-year-old Henry Lee Loggins, a one-time employee of Bryant's, who allegedly restrained Till while he was beaten. Bradley confronts Loggins, who now lives in Ohio, about his alleged role. The man denies having anything to do with the murder.

Bradley also finds the home of Carolyn Bryant, but she won't come to the door when he knocks. Her son, Frank, however, arrives in a pickup truck and tries to intimidate Bradley.

When Bryant angrily tells the CBS newsman it's time to say "goodbye," Bradley asks him if he is "going somewhere" and stands his ground in the driveway.

Both confrontations, of course, are mainly theater. Bradley gets no new headline-making information, and brings no one to justice.

But the symbolism of Bradley (as the TV representation of justice) pursuing these alleged accomplices to Till's murder is important. It is a statement made to an audience of 12 million Americans (the average size of the 60 Minutes audience) that what was done in Mississippi in 1955 is considered heinous by mainstream standards and will not be forgotten by society - ever.

It is the same kind of statement made when aging Nazis are hunted down. It is as much a statement about who we are today as it is about what happened in the past. And in the wake of its reckless on-air allegations about George W. Bush's military record, the report may help this venerable news institution get back on the high road of social responsibility.

On TV

What: 60 Minutes report on the Emmett Till case

When: Tonight at 7

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Ed Bradley revisits an infamous civil rights case

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