Growing up in Baton Rouge, La., Keith Beauchamp became intrigued with justice for Emmett Till’s murder after he discovered an old Jet magazine from 1955 in his parent’s house. On its cover was a photo of Till’s disfigured body displayed in an open casket, shown at the insistence of Till’s mother, who wanted the world to see the savage consequences of racial hatred.
The lynching of Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, helped catalyze the Civil Rights Movement.
“Emmett Till made me who I am. His story is a very big part of my life,” said Beauchamp, who directed and produced a 2005 documentary titled “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” and is working on a feature film titled “Till.”
Beauchamp will speak at the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE) seminar “What Lawyers Can Learn From the Murder of Emmett Till—The Untold Story” on Nov. 13 at the New Jersey Law Center. Thomas H. Prol, a past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, will lead a panel discussion that includes Dara Govan, an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark; Sharon King, of King & King in Woodbury; James A. Lewis V, of Pennington Law Group in South Orange; and Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Beauchamp said he will talk about the investigation into Till’s lynching and the case’s significance to the Civil Rights Movement.
The murder of Emmett Till
On Aug. 24, 1955, Till walked into a store to buy candy and allegedly made vulgar remarks and grabbed and whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who co-owned the store with her then husband, Roy Bryant. Three days later, Roy and his half-brother kidnapped Till in the middle of the night, and tortured and shot him before dumping his body in the Tallahatchee River, weighed down with a cotton gin fan tethered to his neck with barbed wired.
The two men were acquitted by an all-white male jury. Months later, the pair confessed to the murder in a paid interview for Look magazine.
Beauchamp will talk about the Till case, which was twice reopened by the U.S. Department of Justice: once in 2004, citing Beauchamp’s documentary, and again in 2018, after Carolyn Bryant Donham, (now divorced and remarried), recanted parts of her account in a book about Till’s murder by Timothy B. Tyson, a Duke University researcher.
Although the 2004 case closed without any indictments, and the statute of limitations on some charges, such as perjury, has expired, Beauchamp is hopeful the outcome will be different this time, and that Bryant will be charged.
“Carolyn Bryant is no victim,” he said. “Carolyn Bryant is the only person still alive who could tell us what transpired in 1955.”
“Till” and the power to heal
Beauchamp’s new film, “Till,” is based on his documentary and interviews with Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who took him under her wing. “Till” will be produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Fred Zollo (“Mississippi Burning,” “Ghosts of Mississippi”), and others, and filming is scheduled to begin in the spring.
Beauchamp said the film will include information he wasn’t able to use in the documentary because he didn’t want to harm the Justice Department’s case. He said he may disclose some of that information at the NJICLE program.
“I’ve always known information on the case the public was not aware of. I never released that information to the public in hopes of having a second opportunity to see this case reopened and possibly get an indictment,” Beauchamp said.
Beauchamp said he sees parallels between the country in 1955 and today’s divisive political climate, race relations and the shootings of unarmed black people.
“I think that’s why Emmett Till resonates even more today,” he said.
“I think the whole country needs to go through the healing process, and this is the story to do that, to challenge us, to become something better than we are now,” he said.
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