The Untold Story of Emmet Louis Till 2/28/10
Last weekend I saw The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, a documentary about the 1955 Mississippi murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old African American male. The Till murder galvanized the early civil rights movement.
As someone who thought he knew a fair amount about the civil rights movement, I was surprised by how much I did not know about the Till case. The documentary, produced and directed by Keith Beauchamp in 2005, chronicles the story of Till’s murder and its aftermath.
The movie also evokes a period where Black people had no protection from the law. They lived in an apartheid world. The movie is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in a relatively short historical span.
The incident that led to Till’s murder was a big nothing. He wolfwhistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, outside the store she and her husband ran in Money, Mississippi. Allegedly, he also did not say “yes sir and no sir” when he spoke to a white person inside the store.For this, he was dragged out of his bed at night at gunpoint, taken to a nearby barn, tortured and murdered.
The savagery of the murder is graphically recounted. Till was tortured almost beyond recognition. His eyes were gouged out. His teeth, which his mom said were beautiful, were almost entirely knocked out. His nose was chopped . The assailants shot him in the head so there was a hole clear through his skull. When they finished the torture and murder, the assailants tied Till’s body to a 70 pound cotton gin and threw it into the Tallahatchie River.
After the murder, when the body was recovered, the local sheriff wanted immediate burial so people could not see what had been done to Till. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on recovering the body. It was not an easy task to recover the body. The coffin was closed and nailed up so tightly, it was very difficult to open. The funeral director himself had been prohibited from opening the coffin.
Till’s family managed to stop the burial in Mississippi. They brought Emmett’s body back to Chicago for a public funeral. Till was from Chicago. He had been in Mississippi on vacation visiting family at the time of his murder.
Central to the story were the heroic efforts of Till’s mother. With dignity and calm, she described her playful and mischievous son who loved both art and science. Her love for her son shined through the movie. She pursued justice in his case for the rest of her life until her death in 2003. She never did see any justice done.
She insisted on a public funeral with an open casket. At the time, Jet Magazine published a horrifying photo of Till’s disfigured face. The photo shocked the world and exposed the disgusting regime of white racism that ruled Mississippi.
While there is no way to prove it, the photo of Till probably saved countless Black lives. It ripped the cloak of secrecy and normalcy that had hidden the horrors of racism. The photo focused a light on the actions of the white racists so they would know there might be a price to pay for committing such acts.
The movie goes on to recount the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, the two men accused of Till’s kidnapping and murder. An all white jury acquitted both men. The movie shows how the jury was instantly ready to acquit at the conclusion of the trial. Jurors explained that they wanted to make the verdict look good. They waited a while to deliver the verdict because they wanted to avoid the appearance that they did not deliberate (which was the case).
The idea of a white jury convicting white men for the murder of a black boy was unthinkable. In that era, it was suicide for a black man just to testify against a white man.
When the verdict came down, it was high five time all around for the white racists. Weirdly and perversely, many of the local white fathers brought their sons to court to witness the verdict. By their actions, I guess they wanted to pass along their sick tradition.
Immediately after the verdict the sheriff said, “we have no trouble with Southern niggers until they go north and the NAACP talks to them.” He complained that reporters were making a big deal out of the Till murder.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, attended the trial. She had received hate mail and threats telling her that her home would be bombed if she attended the trial. Some of the white racists pointed guns at her as she entered and left the courtroom.
After the trial, feeling confident of their legal invulnerability due to the double jeopardy prohibition against being tried twice for the same charges, both Bryant and Milam confessed to the murder of Till in a 1956 issue of Look magazine. The magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4000 for the story.
Shockingly, 50 years went by before the authorities acted to take another look at this travesty of justice. In 2005, the Justice Department announced an investigation. I am not aware that federal indictments for any charges have ever been brought against anyone on this case. Roy Bryant and Milam were already dead although Carolyn Bryant is still alive.
Many questions remain unanswered about the Till case. Who else was involved in the murder besides Bryant and Milam? What exactly happened the night of the murder after Till was forcibly removed from his family’s home? Who covered up? What was the role of the police and the local power structure in Mississippi? Why did it take so long for authorities, federal and state, to investigate again? Why has nothing still been done?
Getting to the bottom of the story remains important. Racists thrived in an environment where they did not face accountabilty for their crimes. If there can be no criminal charges brought, maybe there should be a Truth Commission to look at the Till case and other such crimes from the 20th century where justice was clearly never done.
Check out this DVD – the documentary is a compelling, incredibly sad story, well told.