Telling Emmett Till’s Story

By Chris Pepus

December 2005 Issue

Filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When he was ten, he found a copy of Jet magazine in his parents’ study and saw a photograph of Emmett Till. “It just shocked me,” says Beauchamp. “Emmett was fourteen years old, and it was like a mirror image of myself—this young boy who was murdered for whistling. I’ve always had that vision of Emmett Till’s corpse etched in my head.”

Beauchamp, director of the recently released documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, took it upon himself to solve the crime. Four decades after the 1955 murder, he began interviewing Till’s relatives and other witnesses. After finding evidence that implicated suspects who are still alive, he and Emmett’s mother pressured federal authorities to reopen the case. Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003, but the FBI and prosecutors in Mississippi announced a new investigation of her son’s murder in May 2004.

“I’m confident that indictments will take place,” says the thirty-four-year-old filmmaker. “There are five people right now who could be charged for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till.”

In August 1955, Till left his native Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi. A few days after he arrived, he bought gum at a store owned by a white man named Roy Bryant. Roy was out of town and his wife, Carolyn, was managing the shop in his absence. The exact details of the incident have long been disputed, but the teenager somehow offended Mrs. Bryant. When Roy Bryant returned, he and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, planned savage retaliation. Armed and uttering threats, they took Emmett from his great-uncle’s home at 2 a.m. on August 28.

Three days later, Till’s body was found in the nearby Tallahatchie River. His face was horribly battered, and there was a gaping hole in his head. When the body was returned to Chicago, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, held an open-casket funeral to let the public see what had happened to her son. Jet published a photo of the victim’s mutilated face and Emmett Till became the symbol of countless victims of lynching. Back in Mississippi, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Milam and Bryant of murdering Till, even though the two admitted kidnapping him. The case provoked international outrage and helped generate support for the civil rights movement.

Soon after the trial, a white, southern reporter named William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam. Protected from further prosecution by their acquittal, the two men proudly admitted murdering Till. “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place,” Milam boasted to the writer. Huie’s 1956 article on the case is controversial, partly because he paid the killers $4,000 to talk. Likewise, his claim that the two brothers had no accomplices was disputed at the time by black reporters like James Hicks, who accused Mississippi officials of covering up the involvement of other perpetrators. Milam, who died in 1980, and Bryant, who died in 1990, remain the only ones ever prosecuted for murdering Emmett Till.

“I was able to identify up to fourteen people who were involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till,” says Beauchamp. “Five of the fourteen people are still alive.”

Beauchamp’s research clarifies what transpired between Till and Carolyn Bryant. “People have written that Emmett Till bragged about having a white girlfriend, showing a photograph of this white girl in his wallet to his cousins, and that they dared him to go inside the store,” he says. “That never happened.”

Here’s what did happen, according to Beauchamp: “Emmett Till asked for bubblegum, and Carolyn Bryant gave him the bubblegum, and Emmett got his change and he put the money into her hand. I think that’s where the flag went up. No one ever analyzed that. Till placed the money into her hand, which means that he violated part of the Southern code at that time. A black male was never supposed to touch a white woman. . . . She was enraged and ran to her car and got a gun, and that’s why the kids scattered and ran away. But when she came out of the store behind Emmett, Emmett turned around and wolf-whistled.”

Beauchamp’s evidence contradicts Carolyn Bryant’s courtroom testimony that Till grabbed her around the waist and propositioned her.

“That was fabricated by Carolyn Bryant,” he says. “Emmett Till was stricken with polio at an early age, and a lot of things she claimed that he said—he wouldn’t have gotten those words out.”

In the process of researching the film, Beauchamp quickly discovered he was on to something big. “As soon as I got to Mississippi, I realized the case was a lot larger than I’d thought it was,” he says. “I was coming across eyewitnesses who had never spoken publicly before, and I realized that I was not taking interviews. I was taking depositions. So I wanted to put together a project that would expose this information enough to get the case reopened.”

Beauchamp even delayed the film so he could further justice in this case. “I was always fascinated about becoming a filmmaker, but I was willing to put the documentary aside just to get all the evidence to the Department of Justice,” he says. “It has never been about the film; it was about finding the right information to get the case reopened. One of the things I did before Mrs. Mobley’s passing, I promised her that I would do everything in my power to get this case reopened, even if I had to hold my film back.”

Chris Pepus is a freelance writer in St. Louis. His work has appeared in such publications as the Progressive Populist, the St. Louis American, and American Theatre. An earlier version of this article appeared in Razorcake.