At the age of 10, Keith Beauchamp came face-to-face with the ugliness of racial hatred. He saw an old Jet magazine photo of a young boy much like himself. But this boy, Emmett Till, was dead in a casket, his face pummeled beyond recognition. The boy was murdered Aug. 28, 1955, for whistling at a white woman in a store in Money, Miss.
Beauchamp wondered how the boy could be murdered for simply whistling at a woman, and how the boy’s murderers could go free. Today, he answers these questions in his documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” In honor of Black History Month, The Network Journal and Macy’s will present the film on Feb. 24 at Macy’s, downtown Brooklyn.
“This film started because I was just shocked that a 14-year-old could be murdered for whistling,” says Beauchamp, now 34 and a resident of Manhattan. “On one page [of the Jet article], I saw this angelic face of a little boy not too far away from me in age and on another page I saw this monster that his killers made him into.”
Beauchamp’s parents used the picture to teach him lessons about racism and civil rights as he grew up in Baton Rouge, La. The photo stayed etched in his mind as he studied criminal justice at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He left the university in his junior year after he got turned on to filmmaking during a summer trip to New York City. He made a few hip-hop and R&B music videos for a friend in 1996, then pursued his calling—an Emmett Till film.
Beauchamp’s parents helped him fund the film by giving him the money they had set aside for his law school studies. “My first step to making the film was reaching out to Emmett Till’s mother [Mamie Till-Mobley, now deceased],” Beauchamp says. “I grew up a mommy’s boy and if I didn’t have the blessing from [Mamie Till-Mobley], I would have never touched the film.”
Till-Mobley welcomed the nervous Beauchamp when he called her in 1996, Beauchamp recalls. He said they became close friends as they spoke for hours about winning justice for her son. Justice was not served in 1955, when an all-white male jury acquitted Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, of charges in the murder of Till after he whistled at Bryant’s wife, Beauchamp says. Twelve others who aided in Till’s murder were never charged, he says.
After talking to witnesses who were never interviewed by authorities in the 1950s, Beauchamp pressed authorities in the 1990s to reopen the murder case. He got his wish on May 10, 2004, when the U.S. Department of Justice and the Mississippi district attorney announced that they would do just that.
Beauchamp says he looks forward to the day when the guilty finally pay for their crime. “One of the things I came to realize as I researched this case was [that] it really wasn’t just about finding the truth; it was about finding my place and identity as a Black man in this country,” he says. “My mission in life now, my passion, is to be an activist for civil rights. The civil rights fight still exists in this country, and after people [such as] the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson pass away, who will carry on for civil rights and racial equality?”
By Towanda Underdue