The murder that motivated

Pratt showing film about killing of Emmett Till

August 30, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Toward the end of August in 1955, Mamie Till took her son Emmett to a station to catch a train south from Chicago to Mississippi for a visit to his aunt, uncle and cousins. But as it turned out, he was traveling to his death.

Today, the Enoch Pratt Free Library will show the documentary film The Murder of Emmett Till. The film will be followed by a panel discussion.

Directed by Stanley Nelson, an acclaimed filmmaker, The Murder of Emmett Till was first broadcast nationally in 2003 on the PBS American Experience series. The film won an Emmy and the Peabody Award.

Scrupulously researched and with extraordinary interviews and remarkable archival footage, the documentary is filled with strong images -- the strongest are those of the torn and battered face of Emmett Till in his coffin and the solemn, sober faces of the many young people who came to see him.

The 14-year-old black boy was beaten and killed by two white men after he purportedly whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant at a crossroads country store in Money, Miss.

The men, Carolyn's husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were tried for the killing that year but acquitted by an all-white jury. Four months later, for $4,000, they told their story of the murder of Emmett Till in great detail to William Bradford Huie, a writer for Look magazine.

Both are now dead, but the Justice Department reopened the case about a year ago in an investigation into whether any others were involved in Emmett's death. The FBI exhumed his body from a grave in suburban Chicago this summer to conduct an autopsy and to search for clues in the young man's death.

Emmett died 50 years ago, Aug. 28, 1955. He was shot through the head with a .45-caliber automatic by Bryant's brother-in-law and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, weighted down with a fan from a cotton gin, according to the Look article. When his body was found, Emmett was identified by his father's signet ring.

"I saw a hole," Mamie Till says in the film, when Emmett's body came back to Chicago, "which I presumed was a bullet hole and I could look through that hole and see daylight on the other side."

The Chicago funeral director asked Mamie Till if she wanted him to "touch up the body." She said, "No, Mr. Rayner, let the people see what I've seen."

"I was willing to bear it," she says. "I think everybody needed to know what had happened to Emmett Till."

Fifty thousand people saw the boy's body. Many turned away in horror. Some fainted.

"When the black magazine Jet ran photos of the body," says Andre Braugher, the actor who narrates the film, "black Americans across the country shuddered."

R.B. Jones, a columnist for the Baltimore Times, will be one of the panelists at the Pratt screening. He was 3 years old when Emmett was murdered. He remembered adults talking about what happened to the boy in a way that was different than even the talk about the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers.

"Here was a kid who [had] a kind of innocence," Jones says. ""What he did is what adolescent boys do generally in Western society, to whistle, or say, `Hey, baby.'

"To mete out that kind of punishment to him for saying that or doing that is just so excessive, just so vicious, no sense of remorse, or sense that you've killed a human being. It was just the callousness of it."

Jones says the murder energized the civil rights movement, "gave it more edge."

"You know: This is something that must change and must change now," he says. "When people [were talking] about gradualism and all deliberate speed, that killing said this can't go on anymore. We want freedom now. I think that's what it meant to the movement."

Many of the film's pictures of the Mississippi Delta -- such as the crossroads store where Emmett is supposed to have "wolf-whistled" at Carolyn Bryant, the huge sheriff who is more interested in preserving segregation than seeing justice done, the courtroom where Bryant's husband and brother-in-law are tried and acquitted -- recall the Depression-era photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

Bryant and Milam came early in the morning of Aug. 28 to wreak their anger on Emmett. He was sleeping with his cousins at the home of his uncle Moses Wright.

"It was like a nightmare," Wheeler Parker, a cousin who came south with Emmett from Chicago, says in the documentary. "I mean someone comes and stands over you with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight and you're 16 years old, it's a terrifying experience. Very terrifying. ... The house was as dark as 1,000 midnights."

Three days later, Emmett's body was found caught on a gnarled root in the muddy water of the Tallahatchie. Bryant and Milam were arrested and tried in Sumner, Miss., in a trial that might have been orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Two African-Americans braved death to testify for what passed for the prosecution.

Willie Reed testified that he saw Bryant, Milam and one other white man and heard the sound of repeated beatings coming from Milam's shed.

"Well," Reed says in the documentary, "when you walked in that courtroom, and you know ... you're going to testify. Then you look at all those white folks ... lookin' at you and they've got frowns on their face. ... They be lookin' at you, rollin' their eyes. ... Yeah. Whites looking at you. It was somethin'."

Moses Wright identified the defendants as the men who came in his house and kidnapped Emmett. Both he and Reed fled immediately to Chicago.

The jury laughed and joked and drank some soda pop and came back with a not-guilty verdict. They said the prosecution had failed to prove the body pulled from the Tallahatchie was Emmett's.

DNA tests have proven that it was Emmett Till.

The Murder of Emmett Till

When: Today at 6 p.m.

Where: Enoch Pratt Free Library, central library, 400 Cathedral St. Free movie to be followed by a panel and audience discussion.

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