The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 68/No. 21           May 31, 2004  
Case of 1955 lynching of
Emmett Till to be reopened
(front page)
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black youth from Chicago, was kidnapped and tortured to death by racist thugs in 1955, while visiting family in Money, Mississippi. The lynching became one of the most well-known cases of racist brutality that helped spark the civil rights movement.

New evidence, recently revealed through a New York filmmaker’s documentary about the murder, is prompting the reopening of the case. The film reportedly provides new evidence that could lead to additional prosecutions in one of the most well known cases of racist brutality that helped spark the civil rights movement.

On Aug. 24, 1955, Till and some young friends went to a store for snacks in the rural town of Money. According to Till’s cousin, Emmett whistled at a young white woman behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant, who ran the store with her husband Roy Bryant.

Four days later, Roy Bryant and his brother, J.W. Milam, went to the home where Till was staying and took him away at gunpoint. They threatened to kill anyone in the house if they talked about it. The two whipped Till with .45 caliber pistols, shot him in the head, tied a 75-pound fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were arrested and tried for the murder but were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp told the Associated Press that he gave federal investigators 100 hours of footage he collected during the nine years he worked on his documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Beauchamp said he interviewed everyone who was at the store when Till was there and all those who were in the house from which he was subsequently abducted.

The filmmaker said he believes that others were involved in the murder and that at least one could face charges. “I can honestly tell you at least one is still alive, and I can confidently tell you there can be a prosecution,” Beauchamp said.

Beauchamp has been showing his 90-minute work-in-progress widely since 2002, including to audiences at the United Nations and National Press Club. He said he showed it to the Mississippi District Attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the state’s northern district in an effort to get the case reopened.

Alexander Acosta, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said that renewed interest in the matter suggested the possibility that others were involved in the murder. The statement said that despite the expiration of a five-year federal statute of limitations then in existence, prosecutions could be carried forward by state courts in Mississippi.

Last year NAACP president Kweisi Mfume wrote Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore urging him to reopen the case. In response to the decision to do so, Mfume said in a May 10 statement, “I am glad the case is being reopened, but it is sad that it has taken so long.”

Till’s killers were acquitted even thought they admitted to the murder and described it in detail in an interview with William Bradford Huie published in the Jan. 24, 1956, issue of Look magazine. “We were never able to scare him,” the killers said of Till. He would not back down and told them, “You bastards, I’m not afraid of you. I’m as good as you are.” Milam, who pulled the trigger, said, “Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless.”

When Till’s body was returned to Chicago for burial, his mother, Mamie Till, made the courageous decision to have an open casket funeral. The coffin had been returned nailed shut and she was instructed not to open it. But she told the funeral home, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” More than 50,000 people viewed the horribly disfigured body. They witnessed a graphic example of the naked brutality of the Jim Crow South.

Black anger at Till’s death would soon explode across the southern United States in the form of the civil rights revolution that over a 15-year period would break the back of segregationist rule and irreversibly strengthen the possibilities of working-class unity.

During the trial, the sheriff, a local plantation owner, jailed and threatened potential prosecution witnesses. Two such witnesses had to be smuggled out of Mississippi because of threats to kill them. Till’s mother, Rep. Charles Diggs from Detroit—one of the few Black congressmen—and Black observers, photographers, and journalists were forced to sit at a card table in the corner of the courtroom.

“Hello niggers,” was how the sheriff greeted them daily as he passed their table. The all-white jury took just one hour to acquit Till’s killers.

Mamie Till and thousands of others wrote President Dwight Eisenhower requesting federal action, but the White House never even acknowledged the request. Mamie Till died Jan. 6, 2003. Though she was suffering from kidney failure, she continued speaking around the country about the lynching of her son, right until the end. “People have told me to let this thing die,” she once said. “But people need to be aware.”  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home