The quest for justice in the Emmett Till case

August 28, 2005|By Keith A. Beauchamp

MY JOURNEY with Emmett Louis Till started when I was 10, a boy in Baton Rouge, La. I was very inquisitive, with a love for reading. I remember riffling through some magazines my parents kept in our study and noticing an old Jet magazine.

After turning a few pages, I came across a horrible photo of a disfigured face. I showed the picture to my parents, and they told me what had happened and who the boy in the picture was. It was hard for me to believe that such a thing could happen. Startled by the story and not wanting to believe it, I was eager to learn more. It is a story that now is well known:

Emmett Till was 14 in August 1955 when he went from Chicago to the tiny town of Money, Miss., to spend the summer with his great uncle, Moses Wright, and his cousins. Three days after arriving, he went with seven boys and a girl to Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market to buy bubble gum and snacks after a long hot day of picking cotton. Possibly on a dare from the others, Emmett was said to have whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old white woman who, with her husband, Roy, owned the shop.

About 2:30 a.m. Aug. 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from Moses Wright's home. They later described beating him brutally, taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.

Emmett Till's decomposed corpse was pulled from the river Aug. 31. In Chicago, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see the horror of the killing. Photos of the boy flashed around the world. It's been impossible to get his disfigured face out of my mind.

Emmett Till was buried Sept. 6, 1955, the same day a grand jury in Mississippi indicted Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam. A trial began Sept. 19. An all-male, all-white jury acquitted the two Sept. 23 after 67 minutes of deliberations.

I was 24 in 1995 when I first started researching the Till case. I made trips to the Mississippi Delta, taking a camera. A real investigation had never been conducted. I focused on the children who were with Emmett Till.

While interviewing residents in the Delta, I found witnesses to the murder. With the help of Ms. Mobley, I decided to produce a documentary that we hoped would reopen the case. In 2000, I began touring the country speaking to universities and civil rights organizations while screening my documentary work in progress, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. In November 2002, we were finally able to screen my work at the New York University Cantor Film Center.

I worked on the film with Ms. Mobley for eight years. I needed her blessing. If she wouldn't be supportive of what I was doing, I wouldn't produce the film. I'd go down to Mississippi again and again. After I did an interview, I'd call her and we'd talk about it. We spoke almost every day.

She held the torch long after her son's death. She was very religious, able to convert negative feelings into positives. Only her faith could get her through those many dark hours. Many people advised her not to speak about her son's murder. It's been 47 years, they'd say; why are you still talking about it?

She never expressed animosity toward the murderers. She never showed me any bitterness about them. She opposed the death penalty. She just wanted to know what happened to her son.

Sometimes I'd learn something that I didn't want her to hear - extreme detail, descriptions of where they committed the crime and how. Once I burst into tears when I had to tell her something to see if what I had learned corresponded with the way she saw her son when she'd viewed the body.

Ms. Mobley became a mother figure. She was strict. She didn't want me to date anyone until I finished the project. Eventually, when I had enough material to do screenings, she'd come and speak to people about the case.

I don't know anything that I'll ever have so much passion for. I'd go to bed thinking of Emmett Till and wake up thinking of Emmett Till, even though I had a 9-to-5 job producing music videos in New York. But I kept looking at Ms. Mobley. She waited 47 years to keep this case open, so I felt the least I could do was to keep at it. So I quit my day job. I'd be in Mississippi and frustrated and wondering when I would get closer to the truth, and she would tell me to keep at it. I didn't know she was nurturing me into becoming an activist until after she was gone.

I had to deal with a lot of pressure, fighting between being a filmmaker and being an activist. I would say I'm both.

On Jan. 6, 2003, I was on the phone with the Mississippi attorney general's office, asking officials to let us turn over evidence on the case. I wanted Attorney General Mike Moore to call and set up a meeting with Ms. Mobley. The call never came through, so I took the initiative to call her myself. But I lost her in the next hour because she had been ill and died.

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