by Jennifer Nemo
In the early 1950s, before the Civil Rights Movement, racial segregation was a well-known and practiced fact of life in the United States, especially in the South: at café lunch counters, at drinking fountains and in hotels; on sidewalks, buses and trains; in schools, zoos, parks and hotels; in the armed forces, professional sports and on the job. Government and State Legislation like the “Jim Crow Laws” and “Black Codes” were used to dictate where the “Colored Folk” or African Americans, could eat, work, drink and sleep.
For many Americans 50 years later, the name Emmett Louis Till might not sound too familiar. Yet what happened to this 14-year-old African American boy in 1955, during a family visit, sparked enough controversy to shock an entire nation, and provide what many believe was the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. And although two white men went to trial for Till’s murder at the time—Roy Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam—they were acquitted within an hour by an all-white jury, despite the amount of strong evidence (including eye witness accounts) against them.
as “the most important documentary of the year” by New York Magazine
the documentary film “The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Till,” produced
and directed by Keith Beauchamp, investigates the 1955 murder and its recent
release coincides with the 50th anniversary of Emmett Louis Till’s death.
In an effort to probe further into the murder of Emmett Louis Till, Beauchamp’s
documentary combines vintage televised news coverage of Till’s death with
interviews and never-before-seen testimony from his surviving relatives and
friends, some of whom have passed away since the filming, including Mamie Till
Mobley, who died two years ago at age 81.
In the fall of 1955, at the age of 14, Till traveled to Money, Miss., to visit
his cousins and was greeted by the town’s welcome sign, which read, “Money:
a good place to raise a boy.” Having never been exposed to the cultural
segregation of the South, the Chicago-born Till was unaware of the unspoken
codes of segregation when he arrived. Till’s 16-year-old cousin, Reverend
Wheeler Park Jr., had traveled to Mississippi with him for protection. In the
film, he recalls Till’s free-spirited personality. “He was the center
of attraction. He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes. Why would that
be a problem? Because once you got to Mississippi, you had no protection under
the law. You couldn’t call anyone for help, once you were there, if you
got into trouble.” Even Till’s own family worried that his inquisitive,
outgoing nature would get him into trouble in the Deep South.
Till’s trouble began one fall afternoon during a visit to the Bryant meat
market and grocery store in Money. At the time, most of the store’s customers
were black workers from the nearby cotton plantations. A young white couple,
Roy Bryant and his wife, Carolyn, owned the store. Carolyn was behind the counter
when Till and his cousins came into the store to buy candy. As they left, Till,
for whatever reason. turned and whistled at her, and she ran outside to get
a gun. In the film, Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, who was 12 at the time
remembers that day well. “When he [Till] whistled, we ran. We jumped into
the car and we got outta there … That was something you didn’t do.”
Three days later, Bryant and his half-brother found Till at his cousin’s
house in the middle of the night, and Simeon watched in fear as the two men
entered the cousins’ bedroom and forced Till to get dressed while Till’s
aunt, now awake, pleaded with the two men not to take Till. They didn’t
listen. They abducted, beat and shot Emmett Louis Till in the head, then used
barbed wire to attach Till’s neck to a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin
and sink him in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mangled, tortured body
was found three days later by a fisherman on August 31, 1955.
Nearly 50,000 people—mostly African Americans—showed up for Till’s
funeral in Chicago. That very same day, Bryant and Milam were indicted on charges
of kidnapping and murder. Despite key witness accounts and damning testimony,
it took the jury less than one hour to return a verdict of not-guilty.
the film, director Keith Beauchamp contrasts the brutality of Till’s murder
with the blatant joy expressed by both Bryant and Milam and television clips
showing townspeople laughing, smiling and patting both Bryant and his half-brother
Milam on the back. Four months following the trial and funeral, with the knowledge
that the law of double jeopardy protected them from being tried again, Bryant
and Wilam confessed their crime to a reporter from Look magazine, who paid them
$4,000 for their story. Although both have since died, Mrs. Bryant is still
alive and may face an indictment.
Some of the film’s most intense moments occur with Mrs. Mobley’s
personal recollections of her only son, Emmett. In the film, she describes him
as strong-willed and intelligent. “Nothing fazed him,” she says.
She fought with Mississippi officials to have his body returned to Chicago for
a proper, public funeral. When Emmett’s body arrived, she ordered the
funeral director to break open the tightly sealed coffin, and display his body
in an open casket to remind everyone of the consequences of racial bigotry.
Now, half a century after Emmett Till’s mangled body was found in the
Tallehatchie River, investigators have re-opened the case due to new evidence
in Beauchamp’s film. The story of Emmett Louis Till’s death is a
powerful and lasting symbol of southern racism in the 20th century. It is one
that will very likely never be forgotten. ||
“The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” shows from Feb. 10 to
16 at the Bell Auditorium. 7:15 and 9:15 p.m. nightly. General admission $8.
Students/Seniors $6.50. Student/Senior Members $5. 10 Church St., Mpls. 612-331-3134.