The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till: An Interview with Documentarian Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp By Chrispepus

Jul 31, 2012

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It is one of the most infamous murders in American history. In August 1955, a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till went to visit relatives in Mississippi. A few days after he arrived, he bought gum at a store owned by a white man named Roy Bryant. Roy was out of town and his wife, Carolyn, was managing the shop in his absence. The exact details of the incident have long been disputed, but the fourteen-year-old Till somehow offended Mrs. Bryant. When Roy Bryant returned, he and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, planned savage retaliation. Armed and uttering threats, they took Emmett from his great-uncle’s home at 2 AM on August 28.

Three days later, Till’s body was found in the nearby Tallahatchie River. His face was horribly battered and there was a gaping hole in his head. When the body was returned to Chicago, Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, held an open-casket funeral to let the public see what had happened to her son. Jet magazine published a photo of the victim’s mutilated face and Emmett Till became the symbol of countless victims of lynching. Back in Mississippi, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Milam and Bryant of murdering Till, even though they admitted kidnapping him. The case provoked international outrage and helped generate support for the civil rights movement.

Soon after the trial, a white, southern reporter named William Bradford Huie interviewed Bryant and Milam. Protected from further prosecution by their acquittal, the two men proudly admitted murdering Till. “As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place,” Milam boasted to the writer. Huie’s 1956 article on the case is controversial, partly because he paid the killers $4,000 to talk. Likewise, his claim that the two brothers had no accomplices was disputed at the time by black reporters like James Hicks, who accused Mississippi officials of covering up the involvement of other perpetrators. Milam (who died in 1980) and Bryant (who died in 1994) remain the only ones ever prosecuted for murdering Emmett Till.

Four decades after the crime, filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp began interviewing Till’s relatives and other witnesses. After finding evidence that implicated suspects who are still alive, he and Emmett’s mother pressured federal authorities to re-open the case. Mamie Till-Mobley died in 2003, but the FBI and prosecutors in Mississippi announced a new investigation of Emmett Till’s murder in May 2004. In this interview, Keith Beauchamp talks about his upcoming documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. He describes what it was like for an African-American filmmaker to investigate the Till case in Mississippi. He also explains what really happened at the store and discusses both the 1955 cover-up and the prospects for bringing the surviving killers to justice.

By Chris Pepus

Chris Pepus:
As you know, the standard account of the lynching of Emmett Till is an article that William B. Huie wrote for Look magazine after interviewing Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. How accurate is Huie’s story?

Keith Beauchamp: Well, one of the things that we discovered since the case was re-opened was that William Bradford Huie didn’t only interview Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. He also interviewed three other men, but he wasn’t able to get the release forms for these three guys, and, therefore, only used Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. The account that he wrote is somewhat accurate. However, you have to keep in the context that there were three other men, and we don’t know how much of the story was told. I have been speaking with William Bradford Huie’s widow for a long period of time because I know he had written something down and didn’t actually publish it. I would say that you have to take his story with a grain of salt.

Pepus: So how many people were involved in the murder?

Beauchamp: I was able to identify up to fourteen people who were involved in the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. One of the men went back to Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam and told them what transpired at the store. Carolyn Bryant did not tell her husband what happened. It was a person by the name of Johnny B. Washington, no longer alive, who went into the store and told Roy Bryant.

Pepus: How did he know what happened?

Beauchamp: The news spread. Washington was seen asking people about the incident and the next day, he went into the store and, for twenty-five cents store credit, he told what happened.

Pepus: For twenty-five cents store credit?

Beauchamp: Yes. Now, this guy was a black field hand. For so long it’s always been said that it was Mose Wright’s (Till’s great-uncle) eldest son that told Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam what happened at the store that day for credit. But we were able to identify the person who actually did it.

Pepus: There have been many conflicting accounts of what transpired between Emmett Till and Carolyn Bryant at the store—that he wolf-whistled at her, that he said, “Bye, baby.” What really happened?

Beauchamp: Well, he did wolf-whistle. That was the reason for the cousins running away from the store. I was able to interview all the cousins who were at the store. From their accounts, Emmett Till went in the store. They (the other cousins) sent Simeon Wright, who was the cousin who was actually in the bed with Emmett Till on the night of the abduction—they sent him in afterwards to make sure that Till didn’t say anything out of line. There was no bragging. People have written that Emmett Till bragged about having a white girlfriend, showing a photograph of this white girl in his wallet to his cousins, and that they dared him to go inside the store. That never happened. That was put out in the media by people in the (white) community who were trying to blame the kids for what happened to Emmett Till. This was all controlled by the White Citizens’ Councils[i] at that time. The photograph that was in Emmett’s wallet was a photograph of Hedy Lamarr.

Pepus: The actress?

Beauchamp: Yes, the actress. During that time—and even today—if you buy a new wallet, they often have photographs that come in the wallet as a sample. Mrs. Till bought Emmett a brand new wallet right before his trip. So as Emmett Till entered the store, the only female in the group of kids, Ruthie May Crawford, was looking through the window. What she said that she saw was that Emmett Till asked for bubblegum, and Carolyn Bryant gave him the bubblegum, and Emmett got his change and he put the money into her hand. I think that’s where the flag went up. No one ever analyzed that. Till placed the money into her hand, which means that he violated part of the southern code at that time. A black male was never supposed to touch a white woman. So then, Simeon Wright went in to get Emmett. As he went in, Emmett was already walking out the door of the store and it just so happened that Mrs. Bryant was walking out behind him. She was enraged and ran to her car and got a gun, and that’s why the kids scattered and ran away. But when she came out of the store behind Emmett, Emmett turned around and wolf-whistled. A wolf-whistle is a very distinctive whistle. He wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant and that’s why the kids began to run away, as well as the fact that she was already going towards her car to get a gun. But what I’m saying to you is that nothing transpired within the store, besides Emmett giving her the money.

Pepus: So your evidence contradicts Carolyn Bryant’s courtroom testimony that Till grabbed her around the waist and propositioned her?

Beauchamp: Absolutely. That was fabricated by Carolyn Bryant. Emmett Till was stricken with polio at an early age, and a lot of things she claimed that he said—he wouldn’t have gotten those words out.

Pepus: Regarding Carolyn Bryant, one suspect who’s still alive, there have been stories that she was with the other kidnappers when they took Till from his great-uncle’s house, that she was the one who identified Till. Were you able to find out if that was true?

Beauchamp: That was actually Carolyn Bryant. When I started meeting with the FBI, the first thing I told them was, “If you ever want to read the truth about this case, go back and look at the microfilms.” Court records were destroyed, so the only thing I could do was go back to the old newspaper articles. The Clarksdale Press (a Mississippi newspaper) covered the story extensively, and a number of articles talk specifically about Carolyn Bryant. There was a warrant out for her arrest in 1955. The sheriff went to arrest Roy Bryant and Carolyn Bryant. Carolyn wasn’t at the house that day and he just left her alone. I just recently looked at the Clarksdale Press newspaper and it talks about her being with the men the night of the abduction. Also, I have an eyewitness who says she was in the truck the night Till was taken from the house.

Pepus: Could you sketch what happened after they took Till out of his great-uncle’s house?

Beauchamp: Well, after they took him out of the house, they took him to Drew, Mississippi, and that’s where the barn was located on Clint Sheridan’s plantation. That barn was managed by Leslie Milam, the brother of J.W. Milam. Of course, that’s where Willie Reed comes in. Willie Reed was a young black man living on the plantation, and he was going to the store in the morning time. And he was walking along the gravel road, and the truck pulls in with J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. He said there were white men in the cab of the truck and black men on the back of the truck. The black men included Emmett Till. When Reed got back (from the store), everybody was in the barn and all he could hear was screaming and crying. He talks about going past the barn, hearing the screaming and crying, and he said he could hear Emmett yelling out his mom’s name, wanting his mom. The next thing he said was that he didn’t hear anything, that everything just went blank. And all of a sudden, he heard a loud scream and that was it. Now, let me explain about the black men he saw on the back of the truck. The black men Reed saw were Leroy “Too Tight” Collins and, he says, Joe Willie Hubbard.

Pepus: Now, both these men worked for J.W. Milam, right?

Beauchamp: Yes, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. However, there was another black man involved in this equation and his name was Henry Lee Loggins, and he was seen on the back of the truck as well.

Pepus: So you have another witness placing Loggins there?

Beauchamp: Yes, I have a number of witnesses placing him there. Now, I’m going to fall back on the FBI records. Better yet, I’m going to talk about James Hicks of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. In 1955, during the trial, the NAACP—Ruby Hurley, Amzie Moore, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, Medgar Evers—and black journalists—Jimmy Hicks, Simeon Booker, and Moses Newson—were involved in a secret investigation. They tried to locate the black men who were seen on the back of the truck. James Hicks was the first to come across the information that these men were actively involved in the kidnapping and murder. Too Tight Collins and Henry Lee Loggins disappeared during the trial and both black and white reporters were looking for them. It was said that H.C. Strider, the racist sheriff, the fat one that everybody sees in the footage, he actually put them in jail against their will so they would not testify in court. One of the things said in 1955 was that if it could be proven that witnesses were taken against their will and put away so that they could not testify, the federal government would have to intervene. I was never able to find out that it was in fact true until I interviewed Henry Lee Loggins. No one had ever spoken to him after all these years, and he invited me to his house and I interviewed him. I had a lot of paperwork from the FBI files and correspondence by Jimmy Hicks that specifically talked about Henry Lee Loggins and his involvement. When I interviewed Loggins, he denied everything. The first question I asked him—because he was J.W. Milam’s right-hand man for a long period of time—I asked him, “What was your relationship with J.W. Milam? Did you like him?” He was telling me, “Yes, I liked him very much. He never did me any wrong.” But, in the middle of our conversation, we started talking about his disappearance during the trial. So he explains that at the time of the arrest of J.W. Milam, J.W. went to him and told him that he could have scrap iron that was behind his home to sell, because he didn’t know if he was going to come back home or if he was going to jail. So Loggins took the scrap iron, and he said that a few days later, the sheriff and J.W. Milam walked up to him and J.W. pointed his finger at him and said, “You stole my iron.” So the sheriff put him in jail for six months.

Pepus: This was Sheriff Strider?

Beauchamp: This was Strider. This was right before the Till trial. But Loggins said yes, he was put in jail because of what they said he knew about the murder, and he kept saying, “I didn’t know anything about the murder.” I said, “But you just told me that J.W. Milam was a good man.” In the film, he stumbles and contradicts himself completely. He goes into the full story of what happened. He acts out all the scenes, tells you the locations where Emmett Till was taken. So I don’t believe that he doesn’t know. It’s not my place to convict; I just wanted to get the opportunity to speak to him.

Pepus: Some other aspects of the Huie story are that Till never realized how much danger he was in until it was too late, and that he was very defiant. Did you find out anything about that?

Beauchamp: I believe that Emmett was possibly in shock, man. I believe that he was in shock to see that some of his own kind would be participating in the murder. I don’t know; I wasn’t in there, but I believe they took turns beating him and they forced the black men to beat him as well. That’s something that we’re still trying to figure out.

Pepus: So how many of the killers are still alive?

Beauchamp: Five of the fourteen people are still alive. There are five people right now who could be charged for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. We all know about Henry Lee Loggins and Carolyn Bryant. There are also three white men.

Pepus: Can you talk about them?

Beauchamp: I can’t, because of the investigation.

Pepus: Okay. Could you tell me how this case affected you when you were growing up, and how you decided to make this film?

Beauchamp: I grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I came across a photograph at the age of ten. I was looking in my parents’ study and I found a copy of Jet magazine, and I saw this photograph of this little boy. And it just shocked me because I was ten years old; Emmett was fourteen years old, and it was like a mirror image of myself: this young boy who was murdered for whistling. I’ve always had that vision of Emmett Till’s corpse etched in my head. Then when I got to high school, I was dating interracially, and the first thing my parents would often tell me was, “Keith, don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.” They didn’t say it to stop me from dating interracially; they just wanted me to be aware of my surroundings. But two weeks before my high-school graduation, I was beaten up by an undercover police officer for dancing with a white girl. It was a wake-up call for me to understand that the Deep South hasn’t changed that much when it comes to racial intermixing. I always tried to put myself in the position to make sure that these things never happened again. When I had an opportunity to work on my first feature, the first thing I ever thought about writing was something about Emmett Till. It actually started off as research material for me to develop a screenplay. As soon as I got to Mississippi, I realized the case was a lot larger than I’d thought it was. I was coming across eyewitnesses who had never spoken publicly before, and I realized that I was not taking interviews. I was taking depositions. So I wanted to put together a project that would expose this information enough to get the case re-opened, and documentaries are the way. I remembered Spike Lee did that with his film Four Little Girls.[ii]

Pepus: Has it been tough to decide what evidence to put in the film and what to leave out? How have you drawn the line between being a filmmaker and being someone investigating a criminal case?

Beauchamp: I have to put my filmmaker career aside. Of course, I was always fascinated about becoming a filmmaker, but I was willing to put the documentary aside just to get all the evidence to the (US) Department of Justice. It has never been about the film; it was about finding the right information to get the case re-opened. One of the things I did before Mrs. Mobley’s passing, I promised her that I would do everything in my power to get this case re-opened, even if I had to hold my film back. I’ve had the film since forever. I had my first screening of the film in 2002.

Pepus: Could you talk a little about what it was like working on this project with Emmett’s mother, the late Mamie Till-Mobley?

Beauchamp: Well, I don’t like talking about it, because it still hurts. I worked with her until she passed away (in 2003). I was on the phone with her an hour before her passing.

Pepus: When Emmett Till’s body was exhumed recently (June 2005), there was a report that Mrs. Till-Mobley had been opposed to exhumation. Is that report true?

Beauchamp: She had never been opposed. Mrs. Mobley kept saying that she wanted an exhumation done. No autopsy was ever performed. Mrs. Mobley gave me the death certificate and it was incomplete. The reason given for losing the trial in 1955 was that the prosecution could not prove that the body that was pulled from the TallahatchieRiver was in fact Emmett Till. Even though we know that Mrs. Mobley knows her son and that she testified identifying him—even though we believe her—the cloud that has been hovering over this case for so long is that that body is not Emmett Till. We had to make sure that was established, and the other thing is that we believe there is forensic evidence that will link others to the crime. I asked the family of Medgar Evers[iii] to come out and speak about this. Charles Evers is a good friend of mine and he showed the importance of it. But the people who are coming out now, Bertha (Thomas), a distant relative of Mrs. Mobley—it was an attack on me. She came out and said, “I refuse to let Mr. Beauchamp or anybody else use Mamie or Emmett for their own agendas,” or something to that extent. It wasn’t said to me last year when I got the case re-opened. But Jesse Jackson jumped on her bandwagon without talking to other family members. He comes out and denounces the federal government—that they’re grandstanding; they’re using Emmett Till as a trophy. And I was furious. He had many opportunities to get involved. I contacted Jesse Jackson at the beginning stages of this project. I asked his assistance. He was too busy. I had Mrs. Mobley call him and ask him to help. He was too busy. All of a sudden, he’s jumping in now and trying to attack the federal government without knowing the situation. He’s been totally out of the loop.

Pepus: Going back to when you were making the film, you must have been concerned for your safety. Did you ever believe that you were in imminent danger in Mississippi?

Beauchamp: I never feared anything, because no one knew I was shooting. I would travel to Mississippi by myself. Well, there was one time I was scared. It was when I interviewed Ruthie Mae Crawford, the only female who was at the store. She was just panicking. I went to her house and I did have two of my friends travel with me that day—and a cameraman. Most of the footage was shot by myself because no one would trust anybody but me. But I had a cameraman with me that night. We went by her house, and as soon as we got out of the car, we walked towards her home and it was pitch dark, that Mississippi darkness. I heard this loud scream. It was Ruthie Mae running out to me, telling me that I’m going to get her killed by bringing all these people to her house. So we had to shoot her in silhouette and she’s just screaming and panicking. So I’m shaking now; she’s shaking; we all are shaking. That’s just the way she reacted. She really felt her life was in danger.

Pepus: Do you believe there will be indictments in this case?

Beauchamp: I hope. I did all I could do to get the right evidence to the FBI and they’ve been doing a great job. I cannot complain about the team of people they’ve got working on it. The special agent and I talk all the time. We have some very sincere agents working on the case and we’re talking about white agents as well. I believe that there’s enough evidence, and I’m still finding new eyewitnesses. So, yes, I would say I’m confident that indictments will take place.  

[i] Known as the “upscale Ku Klux Klan,” the Citizens’ Councils coordinated southern opposition to desegregation, and counted many leading southern politicians, landholders, and businessmen as members. Today, the Councils go under the name “Council of Conservative Citizens.” Senator Trent Lott (R., Miss.) maintained close ties to the group and wrote a column for its official newspaper while he was majority leader of the U.S. Senate. However, he distanced himself from the organization following press coverage of the relationship in 1998.

[ii]Four Little Girls is Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary about the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s SixteenthStreetBaptistChurch, in which four young black girls were killed and 20 other churchgoers were injured. In 2001, an Alabama court convicted one of the perpetrators of murder for his role in the attack on the church, and another of the bombers was convicted in 2002. Both men received life sentences. Many observers credit Lee’s film with reviving interest the case.

[iii] As Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers investigated not only the Till case but many lynchings and acts of racial violence throughout Mississippi. He was assassinated in 1963 by Byron de la Beckwith, but Beckwith was freed after two 1964 trials ended in hung juries. In 1991, Mississippi prosecutors ordered Evers’s body exhumed and a new autopsy performed in preparation for Beckwith’s third trial, which resulted in a conviction and life sentence in 1994.

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