Poetic Tongues/Fabu
The Legacy of Emmett Till
I am one of the few Southerners from Mississippi who did not know about
the gruesome 1955 murder of Emmett Till until I was a graduate student at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I wasn’t born when he was killed,
but due to the historical impact of his death, I wrote a master’s thesis on
how poets all over the Black world wrote about this African American
teenager who was brutally beaten and murdered because he “whistled” at a
white woman in Money, Mississippi.

Later as an adult, while visiting the grave of friends in a Chicago cemetery, I
came upon the grave of Emmet Louis Till.  My Aunt Mattie, from Como,
Mississippi, remembers hearing her dad say, “It is a shame what they did to
that child” and only knew that whites must have done something really
terrible to a young Black boy name Emmett from Chicago, but who was
visiting his uncle down South.  In “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,”
award-winning filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp shared his journey over
decades in an attempt to get some form of justice for Till with an audience at
Edgewood College on April 10 in the Anderson Auditorium.

Beauchamp, as a Black boy, read about the Emmett Till story in Jet magazine
when he was 17 years old.

Beauchamp related that while at a high school dance in Louisiana, a
doorman/ bouncer accosted him for dancing with a white girl. According to
Beauchamp, an undercover police officer then dragged him outside where
he was beaten, before being taken to a police station where he was
handcuffed to a chair and beaten further. He says that the beating only
stopped when the police realized that Beauchamp was close friends with the
son of a sheriff's department major, but Beauchamp promised himself that if
he lived, he would become a Civil Rights Attorney who worked for justice.

Beauchamp is now a filmmaker who spent 22 years of his life investigating
the murder of Till.  His research led him to create the documentary film, The
Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till; to become a life-long friend to Mamie
Mobley, Till’s mother; and to have the case reopened by the United States
Department of Justice in May 2004.  What Beauchamp really did was remind
the audience of the pivotal role that Till’s murder played in igniting the Civil
Rights Movement. He shared that Rosa Parks was thinking of Till when she
decided not to give up her bus seat and that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. also held services in honor of Till.

In 2007, the grand jury in Leflore Country refused to pursue charges against
Carolyn Bryant (Donham,) the woman who said Emmett Till disrespected her
and who ultimately caused his murder. Before she pointed out Till,
Beauchamp discovered that two other African American boys had been
picked up and beaten, until she said “that is not the right n----r.”  The grand
jury, empanelled by Joyce Chiles, an African American prosecutor, did not
re-try anyone else and now all of the culprits are dead, with the exception of
Carolyn.

Beauchamp asked the audience the rhetorical question, “Should Carolyn
Bryant be tried for her part in the murder of Emmett Till?”

As a white woman from Mississippi, she fully understood that when she
complained to her husband, she was signing the death warrant for the 14-
year-old Emmett Louis Till and the audience seemed to whole-heartedly
agree that she was a guilty accomplice. In interviewing people in the store
during the whistling incident, Beauchamp came to the conclusion that Till
said “Bye” twice to Carolyn and as he was headed out the door, he also
whistled.  She immediately went outside to the car for her gun, but Till and
his young cousin ran away. Neither of them told any family adult member
what happened in the local grocery store and later that same night, Till was
kidnapped from his uncle’s home, beaten, killed and his body weighed
down with a gin stone. When his body resurfaced, his mother had an open
casket to let the world see what whites in Mississippi had done to her boy.  

Beauchamp ended his talk with an education piece on “sun downers,”
letting the audience know that deadly racism exists outside of the southern
region too. There are towns and cities in the Midwest and the North, where
African Americans were not safe, and sometimes Jewish, Chinese and other
non-white people, also had to leave once the sun went down. They were
required to leave the town or city limits with visible signs and sometimes
through racist reputations. A long list of current locations exists in
Wisconsin that remain “sun downers.”  Beauchamp’s documentary, “The
Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” is free on YouTube.

Fabu