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The Murder of Emmett Till

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Stanley Nelson’s “The Murder of Emmett Till” airs on “American Experience” tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). It is one of the documentaries showing in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

Although I’d read about the murder of Emmett Till in school and it is included in other documentaries, the story has even more impact after watching this hour. One of the main reasons is the participation of Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley who died on January 6th.

Her husband was been killed fighting in World War II. Emmett wore his ring when he left Chicago to visit his family in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 just after he turned 14. When he was leaving a store on a Wednesday in the tiny town of Money, he reportedly whistled at Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who owned it with her husband (who wasn’t there that day).

That Sunday, her husband and another man came for Till, brutally beat him and shot him. They tossed his body in a river tied to a 75 pound weight. When it was found, his uncle was only able to identify him because of his father’s ring.

She describes seeing her son’s body, and we eventually see a photo of his face. She decided to have her son’s casket open and more than 50,000 people saw his body in Chicago. The photos were also published along with a story in Jet magazine.

After the men were acquitted by a jury of white men (the section of the film on the trial is almost as horrifying as the part on the murder), she travelled around the country speaking about what happened to her son. The killers sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000 and the article is online.

Many believe that the attention the murder received helped spark the civil rights movement, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began just just three months later. Although a lot of things have changed, “The Two Towns of Jasper” on the murder of James Byrd which airs Wednesday night shows that racist murders still happen.

On the website for Nelson’s production company, Firelight Media there is information on how to send a letter calling for re-opening the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till.

DeWayne Wickham suggested in USA Today that President Bush should spend this evening with Nelson watching “The Muder of Emmett Till.” Nelson is being interviewed today on the PBS Newshour (I’ll include a link to the interview when it is available online). He won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship last year and the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance in 1999 for “The Black Press” (which I wrote about).

He also directed “Marcus Garvey” for “American Experience” which is available on DVD.
In February, the Museum of Modern Art will be presenting a retrospective of his films, “Stanley Nelson: The Art of Making People Think.”

Nelson is currently developing documentaries on domestic violence in the African-American community, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the transatlantic slave trade.

This was written for TVBarn where Aaron Barnhart has filed his first Sundance diary.

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About Steve Rhodes

  • yavette

    Emmett Till’s liar Carolyn Bryant Donham needs to be subpoena to go to trial in court and the jury to convict her and say guilty. then transfer her to the womens prison in chino, california she does not need to be in a isolated prison, must be taken out of Greenville Mississippi and brought to trial in california. she must do life in prison behind emmetts death

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    The main reason, I am sure, that the killers of Emmett Till were willing to go on record as to what really happened that night would be that they had been acquitted of the crime. To retry them would double jeopardy.

    Protection against double jeopardy is given to Americans under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.

    We have this law to prevent the harassment of individuals who might be re-tried again and again otherwise.

    The reason given for the not guilty verdict was according to the foreman, that the “state failed to prove the identity of the body.”

    As horrific as what happened to Emmett Till, Mamie Till Mobley must take partial responsibility. Although she did bravely insist that contrary to what had been demanded (that she not open the coffin), that people see the true horror of what had happened, she also insisted that she perform the identification, without the help of people who would have more expertise and more objective authority in such matters.

    Much, much later, before her death, she also insisted on writing a play about her experience and that there be no changes to her script. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, it had a hard time finding a director. The play was heavily flawed and amateurish.

    Mamie Mobley did attend that opening night performance and express her thanks to the theater company and the director as well as shake the hand of everyone who attended.

    My friend, who is African American, and I both agreed that the play on stage was a horrid and unfortunate mess.

    It is unfortunate that Emmett Till’s mother, in her protectiveness, could not see fit to have expert guidance at the time of the autopsy (and this would have negated the possibility of the foreman giving such an excuse) and again, when it came time to tell her child’s story on stage, refused the help of experienced playwrights–many of whom would be eager to get her blessing and this important, poignant story on stage.

    As for Carolyn Bryant Donham, she did not witness the crime. What would the subpoena be for?

    The incident as described on the American Experience Web site link indicates that the 5-foot 100-lb. woman was grabbed around the waist by a man 5-6 inches taller and 60 lbs. heavier.

    Black, brown or white, that is improper and threatening behavior from a man to a woman. It doesn’t justify murder, however, it shows a grave misjudgement on the part of Till. This is more than just a wolf whistle which is what I had originally thought had been the full extent of the act. Such touching would be unacceptable now and even more so then if both people were strangers and of the same race.

    By what the Web site American Experience describes, Emmett Till ironically became a Civil Rights hero as a result of one harassing act and its horrific consequence.

  • Helen Leung

    In reply to the previous comment, I think you are mistaken in describing the event as “5-foot 100-lb. woman was grabbed around the waist by a man 5-6 inches taller and 60 lbs. heavier”. I just watched the program, and read through the transcript, and there was no description of anything like that. Rather, a 14 year old boy whistled at a woman, and for this he was murdered. Wolf whistling at women happen at most construction sites and happens quite frequently, and obviously no reason to kill. The harrassing act was not carried out by Emmett Till, it was by his killers.

  • DEE

    I don’t believe the comments of the person two comments prior. Who better to identify a son than his mother???????
    Do you honestly believe that was the only reason for aquittal? How about blatant, rabid racism and blind prejudice. There is no way that an all-white jury in Money, Ms. would have convicted a white neighbor for killing a Black man or child. I am a 55 yr. old Black woman, and of all the accounts that I have heard of the Emmet Till account, this is the 1st time I’ve heard of the groping incident you attribute to him.

  • Sue

    I don’t think is mother was responsibly for anything. That was her baby, her son, he was only 14 and some white men took him and killed him. How was she responsiblity for showing what they did to her child? She had every right..the amendment also said that we have rights to do whatever we want..she has all right. I have 16 year old brother. He’s the only boy and the last child out of three kids…if something were to happen to him, I will go crazy…he was just a child!!!how cruel can they be. They’ve put Black people through so much but yet they claimed she was wrong..what would you have done if it were you? Think about her feelings; put yourself in her shoes and I promise you, if you can feel what she felt, you would hate every minute of it.

  • erica mattison

    i think that something as bad has this. they should be put in prisson or even killed, and they walked out happy like nothing happened. I am glad EMMET TILL got his justice but i am not glad it took 50 years to recover this case anyone in there right mind would know that this is a person who is crazy and should be punished ffor what they did and an adult would know not to murder a child and to see this sick picture also to be there wihle happening,and to be happy and proud about what they did wich is murdered. I am glad that Emmet Till got his jusdice and the people the sick minded people were punished. REST.IN.PEACE EMMET TILL.

  • flanders

    The article that Purple Tigress is referring to is a Look Magazine profile from the 1950’s. It can also be found at emmitttillmurder.com. Emmitt Till was 5’4 or 5’6 and was a stocky 160 pounds. Mrs. Bryant was 5 and 100 pounds. There was an incident in the store which preceded the whistle, but accounts vary as to what occurred (it did warrant one of Till’s cousin’s coming in and dragging him out of the store). It should be noted that in all accounts, Mrs. Bryant did not tell her husband about the encounter. She did not demand revenge, but, rather, wanted the incident to go away. Rather, Mr. Bryant was informed of the encounter several days later by a customer (which, at one point, was identified as Till’s older cousin, who was jealous of his visitor from the North). Again, all of this can be found in the articles at emmitttillmurder.com, which detail alot of ground not covered in this documentary.

  • Sandi

    According to American Experience (the PBS website) “exactly what happened next is uncertain.” Therefore, there is no evidence that Till even touched Carolyn Bryant. My guess is that she was caught off guard and felt embarrassed. So she implicated Till in an effort to regain her feeling of superiority. One way or another, she knew what she was doing and what would come of it.

    It is amazing that someone would imply that “a grave misjudgement on the part of Till” warranted his torture and brutal murder. Who remembers anything wise they said as a 14-year-old?

  • Rique

    THE BRUTALITY INFLICTED ON THAT CHILD IS BEYOND COMPARE. GOD IS GOING TO HAVE A FEAST WITH THEIR SOULS. ALTHOUGH I’M AN AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN, I WOULDN’T EVEN WISH THAT KIND OF BRUTALITY ON EMMITT TILL’S KILLERS. THEIR SOULS MAY NEVER REST.