New Documentary Revisits Emmett Till's Lynching

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The new documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till revisits the events leading to the 14-year-old's lynching in Mississippi 50 years ago. Director Keith Beauchamp and Till's cousin, Simeon Wright, tell Ed Gordon about the film.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It's one of America's most infamous murders. Half a century ago a black teen-ager named Emmitt Louis Till was killed in Mississippi. His alleged attackers were upset that the 14-year-old boy had whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman. A jury of white man quickly acquitted those accused, and, since then, prosecutors haven't tried anyone else for the crime. A new documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till," features Till's late mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, calling for justice.

(Soundbite of "The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till")

Ms. MAMIE TILL MOBLEY (Emmitt Louis Till's Mother): It's my opinion that the guilt begins with Mrs. Bryant, and I feel like the pressure should start from the president of the United States and be channeled all the way down to the township of Money, Mississippi.

GORDON: Keith Beauchamp directed the film. He relied heavily on help from Till's mother and from Till's cousin, Simeon Wright. Beauchamp spent 10 years making the documentary. He'd originally planned a more elaborate project.

Mr. KEITH BEAUCHAMP (Director): It wasn't until I got into Mississippi and began to speak to some of the residents there and where I began to see that it was much more here, meaning that there was rumors that people who were involved with the kidnapping and murder of Emmitt Till were still alive. So it took me three years to get Mr. Wright to talk. He was the missing link that gave me access to all the other eyewitnesses who actually saw the atrocity being committed and things of that nature.

GORDON: Mr. Wright, let's go to you. Why did you decide to open up finally and why to Keith?

Mr. SIMEON WRIGHT (Emmitt Till's Cousin): My wife is the reason, and one of the other reasons, he showed me a script of a feature film that they wanted to produce, and I saw the inaccuracies in there, and actually I got highly upset, and I threatened not to even talk to him again, and he convinced me that all he wants to do is get the truth out, and I actually committed my trust to him.

GORDON: Keith, so many people know the name `Emmitt Till,' and the most they know is here was a little boy at the time who came down South, whistled at a white woman and found himself dead. Let's talk a bit about how you see America, in specific, in not wanting to delve more into the idea of the civil rights time and all of what went on. It seems as though we kind of gloss over it.

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: The whole objective of my involvement with this project was to raise the consciousness of my generation, to get them involved with the movement that still exists. But, you know, it would take education. It would take our elders, because I have to say that when I first begun this project, not too many of our elders wanted to discuss this topic or even civil rights issues or the civil rights movement of our past. They felt that since we're in a new generation today, that information is no longer needed for us to talk about because it was a bad time of that era and we don't have to go through it now, but that's what's been harming our community, the African-American community, and the white community, because we don't talk about the issues of our past.

GORDON: Obviously, this is a tremendous success for you. Are we going to see another documentary out of you?

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: The next thing I'm planning on doing is about the lynchings that are occurring throughout the Deep South. Since my involvement with the Emmitt Till case, some of the family members of some of these victims have reached out to me to ask me if I would come back in those certain areas to give them assistance or bring awareness to those cases. But it may be a second version of this documentary on the Emmitt Till case. Justice done for Emmitt Till first, my career is second. You know, my whole dream, you know, as a child, was to tell this story just like it was told to me.

GORDON: And, Simeon Wright, let me ask you, as a family member, talk to me, A, about what you hope will happen, and, then, B, is this a chapter that you even want closed because your cousin has for so long stood for the injustice of a horrible time in this country?

Mr. WRIGHT: The night that they took Emmitt, and they took him out to the truck, there was a woman's voice to identify him.

(Soundbite of "The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till")

Mr. WRIGHT: He and I left the store together. We didn't have any conversation with Mrs. Bryant. We left together. She came out of the store and went to her car, which was parked on the north side of the store, and as she was going to her car, that's when Emmitt whistled at her, the famous wolf whistle.

I think everything started with her. And to see her brought to justice is my number-one concern right now. Number two, anyone else that was involved, I've told people they had 50 years to get it straight, to come forth and tell what happened, and they didn't do it. Now if they are convicted, it's because of their own unconcern about the case. You know, I was just talking to a young white lady down in Mississippi July 1st and she said that her generation was not going to stand for what the older generation had committed against black America in Mississippi.

GORDON: Well, let's hope those words, indeed, ring true. Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us today. I appreciate it.

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: Thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you.

GORDON: The documentary "The Untold Story of Emmitt Louis Till" opens this week at New York City's Film Forum.

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