Half a century after Emmett Till’s mutilated body was found in a Mississippi river, investigators have unearthed his casket and reopened the case. We play excerpts of a new documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till" that uncovers new evidence in the case and we speak with the filmmaker, Keith Beauchamp. [includes rush transcript]
On June 1st of this year, 50 years after Emmett Till’s mutilated body was found in a Mississippi river, federal investigators unearthed the teen’s casket in search of clues in a murder case that helped kindle the civil rights movement. Mississippi prosecutors and the FBI have said DNA or other evidence might help determine who killed the 14 year-old and whether anyone still alive should be prosecuted.
In August of 1955, Till was abducted, beaten and shot near Money, Mississippi after he allegedly whistled at a white female store clerk. The clerk’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. The two later confessed to beating and shooting Till in a magazine article. Both men have since died.
The U.S. Justice Department announced last year it would reopen an investigation into Till’s slaying, saying it was triggered by several pieces of information including a documentary by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.
- "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till", excerpt of documentary.
- Keith Beauchamp, producer and director of "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."
AMY GOODMAN: This is Mamie Till Mobley, Emmett Till’s mother, describing the first time she saw Emmett’s corpse.
MAMIE TILL MOBLEY: My father was on one side of me, and Rayfield Mooty was on the other side of me, and Gene was at my back. And I shrugged them. I said, "Turn me loose. I’ve got a job to do, and I don’t have time to be fainting now." I saw his tongue had been choked out and it was lying down on his chin. I saw that this eye was out, and it was lying about midway to cheek. I looked at this eye, and it was gone. I looked at the bridge of his nose, and it looked like someone had taken a meat chopper and chopped it. I looked at his teeth, because I took so much pride in his teeth. His teeth were the prettiest things I’d ever seen in my life, I thought. And I only saw two. Where are the rest of them? They had just been knocked out. And I was looking at his ears. His ears were like mine. They curled. They’re not attached, and they curled up the same way mine are. And I didn’t see the ear. Where’s the ear? And that’s when I discovered a hole about here, and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, now was it necessary to shoot him? If that’s a bullet hole, was that necessary? And I also discovered that they had taken an axe, and they had gone straight down across his head, and the face and the back of the head were separate.
Well, I looked at Mr. Rayner, and Mr. Rayner wanted to know, was I going to have the casket opened? I said, "Oh, yes, we’re going to open the casket." He said, "Well, Ms. Bradley, do you want me to do something for the face? Want me to try to fix it up?" I said, "No. Let the people see what I have seen." I said, "I want the world to see this, because there’s no way I can tell this story and give them the visual picture of what my son looked like."
REV. AL SHARPTON: The easiest thing would have been to say, "No, close the casket. I can’t bear it." But she somewhere found the strength to say, ’I’ll bear my pain to save some other mother from having to go through this,’ and because she put the picture of this young man’s body on the conscience of America, she might have saved thousands of young black men and young black women’s lives.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Reverend Al Sharpton, talking about Mamie Till Mobley’s decision to have an open casket at her son’s funeral. This from the film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Keith Beauchamp is the producer and director, spent ten years investigating the Till murder and has found new evidence that has led to the reopening of this investigation by the current Justice Department. He joins us in our studio right now. Keith Beauchamp, welcome.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this new evidence?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Well, through my investigation, while producing the film, I came across that up to 14 people was involved with the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till. Five of these people were black. They were employees to JW Milam and Roy Bryant, and we believe they were forced to participate. Right now, there’s five people who could be possibly indicted and charged for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Louis Till.
AMY GOODMAN: Five? The others are dead?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes. The others are dead.
AMY GOODMAN: Milam and Bryant being the husband of the woman clerk and the husband’s brother?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes, Roy Bryant and JW Milam are no longer alive. They passed away in the 70s and 80s.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get this information? I mean, we’re talking about 50 years later, a story that has been told over and over again.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why you?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: That’s the question that I continue to ask myself. In '96, I began to work fully on this case. I moved to New York City to work in the film industry, and I always had a fascination with the Emmett Till case since I was ten years old. I was in my parents' study. I came across a Jet magazine photograph and saw this photograph of Emmett Till’s corpse, and it shocked me tremendously. And I just wanted to know what this picture was. And my parents at that time set me down and told me the story of Emmett Louis Till, but throughout my life, the name kept resurfacing. When I got into high school, I was interracially dating, growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And the first thing my parents would often tell me, "Keith, don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you." But it was an educational tool that was told to many African American men of the Deep South to keep us aware of the racism that still exists.
But it wasn’t until '96 when I had an opportunity to produce the film. I actually went to Southern University of Baton Rouge to study criminal justice in hopes of becoming a civil rights attorney, but my childhood friends who moved here to New York City had basically started their own film production company, so I began working with them. We sat down at a meeting one night, and everyone asked, "Keith, if there was a movie that you wanted to produce, what would it be?" And I said, "Emmett Till," a name that I heard most of my life. So it started off as research material to produce a feature film. It wasn't supposed to be a documentary. It wasn’t until I got into Mississippi and started finding eyewitnesses who — some of these people have never spoke publicly before — that I realized that I wasn’t taking interviews, I was actually taking depositions and decided to hurry up and put it in a package in a way that I could get it out to the masses, in hopes of getting the case reopened.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean they weren’t talked to before? I mean, there was a first trial.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yeah. There was a trial, but there was never an investigation in the case. The people who should have been interviewed at the time was the kids who were at the store with him until the day of — the day of the so-called wolf whistle, as well as the kids — his family members who were with him the night of the abduction. No one had ever spoke to these people. And if you are talking about leading an investigation in a murder case, that would be the first thing you would do, would go to the people who were at the scene of the crime. And these people have never spoke to officials.
AMY GOODMAN: And who are these 14 people? In what way were they involved?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Well, the 14 people actually was involved with bringing — I mean, being involved with notifying the store owner’s husband — I mean, the store owner’s — the store owner itself — himself, as well as bringing the men to the house that night of the abduction to abduct Emmett Till.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to —
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: As well as the murder.
AMY GOODMAN: — another clip in your film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, which was once again Mamie Till Mobley, who only recently died.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Responding to the conviction, responding to the court proceedings.
MAMIE TILL MOBLEY: When I saw the antics that were going on in the courtroom, I could tell that everything was against us. And when the jury retired to render their verdict, I noticed that the black people who were lining the walls in the backs of the room, they were quietly leaving the courtroom. And I knew then that they knew we were not going to get a guilty verdict. And I said to my party, "It’s time for us to go." Congressman Diggs said to me, "And miss the verdict?" I said, "This is one you don’t want to hear. The verdict is 'not guilty.'" To satisfy me, they agreed to leave. And I guess about 45 minutes away from the courtroom, the verdict came in "not guilty."
AMY GOODMAN: Mamie Till Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, responding to the acquittal of the two men who were put on trial.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You now have uncovered information about the conspiracy, as basically what you are talking about. How did the John Ashcroft Justice Department decide to take this up, based on your information?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Well, the process didn’t just start last year. I have been in touch with state officials in Mississippi since 2000, when I first came across the information. It was very hard getting this information to them. I was fortunate to have two friends of mine, close friends of mine now, two human rights workers, Alvin Sykes and Donald Burger, who had basically a relationship with the Department of Justice who came in to help me facilitate meetings and things of that nature to get the evidence to the officials themselves. But again, the process started since it was 2000. And I was just so frustrated to lose Mrs. Mobley at a time that her dream was coming to fruition. But —
AMY GOODMAN: Did she know what was happening before she died?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: She knew exactly what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the Justice — she know that the Justice Department was going to reopen the investigation?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Well, she didn’t know that the Justice Department was going to reopen the case, but she knew that I was having phone conversations with officials and the Mississippi — but she never trusted the State of Mississippi. We felt that we needed to bring in the federal authorities to investigate this case and hope for them to — in hopes that they would take their findings to the state officials, and that way some of these people were gong to be brought back on charges. But the thing is that’s been so amazing is the whole process.
It just didn’t happen overnight. Again, it took a lot of people to be involved to get to where we are at. I had numerous private screenings over the years for the past seven years, I have been speaking about this, traveling to different universities and civil rights organizations, speaking publicly about this to galvanize the public behind these efforts. It was something that Mrs. Mobley and I planned. She said, Keith, you need to use the same tactics that I did back in 1955 to possibly bring more recognition to this case, because in '55 you had the people involved. And that's what we needed with this case to help put that kind of pressure on the DOJ’s office.
AMY GOODMAN: Your film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, is coming out, it will first debut at the Film Forum in New York on the 50th anniversary of Emmett’s death?
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes, from the 17th —- August 17th to the 30th, the Film Forum—-
AMY GOODMAN: Of August.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Of August. The New York Film Forum is hosting screenings of the film to commemorate the 50th anniversary to Emmett Till’s —
AMY GOODMAN: This is also the anniversary of the march on Washington.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes, August 28 is the anniversary to the march of Washington —- on Washington, as well, but a lot of people don’t understand why that date was chosen. I mean, that date was chosen -—
AMY GOODMAN: With Dr. King’s famous address.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes, A. Philip Randolph was involved with the planning of the march on Washington. They chose the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder to have that march.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Keith Beauchamp, I want to thank you very much for being with us.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: The producer and director of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, has been seminal in the reopening of this case. Thank you for joining us before you head down to Philadelphia, Mississippi.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: For the retrial of Edgar Ray Killen, for the killing of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi that is going on right now. Thank you for joining us.
KEITH BEAUCHAMP: Yes, thank you.