Filmmaker Looks Back at Emmett Till Case

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp talks about his documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Till was murdered 50 years ago. His death is widely viewed as the catalyst for the civil rights movement.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the dark early morning of August 28th, 1955, a black teen-ager was dragged from his bed in Money, Mississippi, by two white men and taken away. One of the men said the young Emmett Till, who was visiting from Chicago, had whistled at his wife, and, for that, he needed to be punished. The terrible story of Emmett Till has been told and retold this past year, how his body was found in a river three days later, shot, hacked, wrapped in barbwire, how the white men were acquitted by a white jury, how his mother insisted her son's mutilated body be displayed in an open casket.

Ms. MAMIE TILL-MOBLEY (Emmett's Mother): I said I want the world to see this, because there's no way I could tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like.

MONTAGNE: This past June, the FBI exhumed Emmett Till's body as part of a new investigation. With the 50th anniversary of his death this Sunday, we asked filmmaker Keith Beauchamp to join us from New York. He spent nine years working on the documentary "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." He also pushed to get the case re-opened. The two white men acquitted back in the 1950s, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, later admitted they did kill Emmett Till. Keith Beauchamp found at least five other people directly involved in the murder.

Mr. KEITH BEAUCHAMP (Filmmaker): There's a number of eyewitnesses that I've interviewed along the way who spoke of other people, as well, who was involved with the murder, and we ended up finding out that some of these people are alive. You're speaking about Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who Emmett Till whistled at. I was able to locate the FBI records on the case, and after reviewing it I found out they had a warrant for her arrest back in 1955 in which she was never served. Then you also had Henry Lee Loggins, one of the black men who were seen on the back of the truck at the time of the murder who was still alive, to whom I've also interviewed for my film. So these two people, of course, are being investigated at this point. However, this is not new information. I mean, some of the people who were involved in this case back in 1955, they were the first to come across this information.

MONTAGNE: As you say, one of the people who may have witnessed this and be under suspicion is African-American, at least one.

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: Yes.

MONTAGNE: That--I mean...

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...that's got to be a sensitive issue.

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: It is a very sensitive issue, but when you think about the time, you're talking about '55, before the American civil rights movement. So, you know, one would believe and--one would think, I should say, that these people were coerced into participating in the crime. However, I think it's a point in time where this person needs to come forward and tell us what he knows.

MONTAGNE: The re-opened criminal investigation and the 50th anniversary of the lynching of Emmett Till--his story has been in the news all this last year. Is there more to find out or is this really about making sure that the whole story is told?

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: Well, I mean, this story is more relevant today than ever. Look what's just happened over the year since the case re-opened. Jeb Bush in Florida re-opened three other civil rights murder cases. And just the whole aspect of the historical context of this case, in general--Emmett Till was the catalyst that sparked the American civil rights movement. It was 100 days after Emmett Till's murder that Rosa Parks refuses to get up from her seat on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama. And she have quoted this for many years, it was because of Emmett Till's murder being foremost in her mind; that's why she made that decision. Just like this case was a catalyst for change back in 1955, it will be a catalyst for change today. And this is something that Mrs. Mobley instilled in me. We knew how prominent and how important this case was to American history, not only for the past but generations to come.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. BEAUCHAMP: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Keith Beauchamp made the documentary "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." The 50th anniversary of Emmett Till's death is this Sunday.

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