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Turning Point 

For an entire century after the Civil War, African Americans lived in a state of second-class citizenship, discriminated against in countless ways. In Southern states, that discrimination was codified in the so-called Jim Crow laws that denied black people equal education, equal voting rights, equal access to public facilities and equal protection by the law. Legalized segregation was reinforced by attitudes of racial superiority that were preached in the white church, proclaimed from the white-dominated political platform, and taught in the white home.

Those black people who defied submissive expectations, or were just accused of doing so, were subjected to beatings and worse. An unknown number of black men were lynched for the purported crime of disrespecting white women. And those whites who murdered their black neighbors were seldom identified, rarely prosecuted and almost never convicted. The social practice by which whites could commit violence against blacks lasted into the 1960s when the Ku Klux Klan and their allies could kill civil rights activists without fearing the sanction of justice. The senseless, vicious killing of a black teenager in 1955, however, finally piqued the national conscience. That's the story producer/director Stanley Nelson tells in his documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till.

Written by Marcia Smith, The Murder of Emmett Till won the New Orleans Film Festival's Documentary Award and the Grand Jury Prize. The Emmy-nominated film recounts how a high-spirited, roly-poly black boy traveled from his home in Chicago to visit with his Uncle Mose Wright who lived in the Mississippi Delta. The only child of a soldier killed in World War II, Emmett turned 14 just weeks earlier that summer. Raised in the city by his mother, Mamie, Emmett was looking forward to the pleasures of spending some time in the country. Things went well for a while, and Emmett enjoyed himself. Then one afternoon Emmett accompanied his cousins into the tiny nearby town of Money to get soft drinks and candy at the general store. White owner Roy Bryant was away that day, but his pretty young wife, Carolyn, was behind the counter. The other boys exited first. After making his purchases, Emmett, it was said, stopped in the doorway, turned back to Carolyn and whistled at her. Other accounts of this incident have questioned whether Emmett was whistling at Carolyn or at his cousins or whether he even whistled at all. Nelson and Smith assume that the whistle was consistent with Emmett's sassy but good-natured personality.

Whatever really happened, Carolyn Byant alleged that a black teenager had treated her with disrespect, and the black teens fled back to their uncle's farm, afraid that they were going to get in trouble. When nothing happened for three days, they assumed that nothing was going to. Then in the wee hours of the third night after the incident, Bryant and his brother-in-law J.W. Milan showed up at the Wright house and took Emmett away at gun point. Several days after that, Emmett's badly beaten body surfaced on a river bank. A 75-pound cotton-gin fan had been attached to his neck with a strand of barbed wire. An eyeball dangled from its socket, and his face was otherwise so disfigured that Wright could only identify him by a family heirloom ring.

This incident might have slipped from history little noticed, save that Mamie Till insisted on leaving her son's casket open at his funeral. Photos of his brutalized face outraged fair-minded people of whatever race, and a cry for justice rang out across the land. Remarkably, perhaps, Bryant and Milan were arrested and charged with murder. But every lawyer in the county joined their defense team, that argued they were innocent because the mutilated body wasn't that of Emmett Till, who, they claimed, was part of a communist plot and was still alive. In two acts of astonishing courage, another black teenager, Willie Reed, testified that he'd seen blood-stained clothing and Emmett's shoe in Bryant's pick-up, and Wright testified that Bryant and Milan were the men who took Emmett away on the night he disappeared. Nonetheless, an all-male, all-white jury found them innocent in less than an hour. Protected by the rule of double-jeopardy from further prosecution, Bryant and Milan sold an interview to LOOK magazine in which they admitted they were the killers.

Mamie Till, still alive and amazingly articulate, appears in this film and urges us to understand her son's death as a pivotal event in launching the Civil Rights movement. The film certainly makes clear the horrifying extent to which white-on-black violence stood completely outside the rule of law in our very recent history. If I have a criticism of this film, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, it's that, at less than an hour, it's too short. What happened to Bryant and Milan after their acquittal? How did they live and die? To what extent, if any, did they pay for their crime? Mose Wright lost his farm. How did he sustain himself? What is Reed's story after the trial?

click to enlarge Mamie Till grieves beside her son's casket in - Stanley Nelson's award-winning documentary, - The Murder of Emmett Till.
  • Mamie Till grieves beside her son's casket in Stanley Nelson's award-winning documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till.
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