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FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body

50 years later, there may be justice for Emmett Till. The FBI has agreed to exhume the body of the brutally murdered 14 year old to determine his cause of death.

Emmett, who was raised in Chicago, was kidnapped, beaten, shot to death and dropped in the Tallahatchie River in 1955, reportedly after he whistled at a white woman in Money, Miss., while visiting relatives. Two white men who were acquitted in the case by an all-white jury and later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. Both are now dead.

Major credit for the FBI decision goes to documentary filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, whose film and life were the subject of a lengthy New York Times article that I quoted here.

Beauchamp grew up in Lousiana and when he was 10 or 11, he found a picture of the mutilated body of Emmett Till. He has been obsessed with the case ever since, spending the last six years filming and tracking down witnesses.

The trial took place in Tallahatchie County which at that time only had all white juries even though the population was two-thirds black.

"In the minds of many Mississippians in 1955, a black man could justifiably be lynched even for looking at a white woman. Emmett was tortured and killed for allegedly "wolf whistling" at Mr. Bryant's wife, Carolyn, a storekeeper in Money, Miss. One of the tragedies of this case is that the so-called "wolf whistle" was probably a misunderstanding. Emmett had a speech impediment. When he got stuck on a word, he would stop speaking and abruptly whistle, as a way of untangling his tongue."

"Over the last several decades, Hollywood has turned away even famous producers who wanted to bring this story to film. As an unknown, working quietly on his own, Mr. Beauchamp has succeeded where others have failed, casting new light on a crime that many thought would remain forever unpunished. The information in this film could conceivably change that, allowing law enforcement officials to achieve justice at last for Emmett Louis Till. "

Mr. Beauchamp believes that as many as 10 other people, 5 of whom are still alive, might have taken part in the killing and could still be prosecuted.

The film's website is here.

In August 1955, a fourteen-year-old black boy whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till, a teen from Chicago, didn't understand that he had broken the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South until three days later, when two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and then shot him in the head. Although his killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were both acquitted quickly by an all-white, all-male jury. Shortly afterwards, the defendants sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till, to a journalist. The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world. Till's death was a spark that helped mobilize the civil rights movement. Three months after his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.

If not for one extraordinary decision of Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, the story may have ended there. At the urging of civil rights leaders, Mamie Till decided to leave the casket open at her son's funeral. She told the mortician not to "fix" her son's face. The world would see what had been done to him. Tens of thousands of people viewed Emmett Till's body, which was on display in a Chicago church for four long days. Gruesome photos of his maimed and distorted face flooded the national and international press. America was shocked out of comfortable complacency, and the Till case became international news.

Mamie Till-Mobley became a leader of the civil rights movement after her son's death. She dedicated the remainder of her life to trying to reopen the investigation into his murder. In 2003, she died, just two weeks before the film premiered on television. She was 81.

In 1963, Bob Dylan memorialized Emmett in "The Death of Emmett Till."

I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.

If you've never seen a photograph of a lynching, go here and here.

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  • Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#25)
    by Johnny on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:57:57 PM EST
    As far as Emmett Till is concerned, if the autopsy can prove who murdered him and get them convicted, then I'm all for it. If it can't, then I'm against it.
    Huh? How can you know what you stand for then?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#1)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:43 PM EST
    I watched a documentary about this lynching last year. It was a great reminder of just how easy it was for much of America to descend into outright fascism. When you see the fine murder-enabling white folks who acquitted the killers (I believe the defense was something like that they were busy beating their wives and Emmitt musta tripped on his shoelace) at the show trial, you see that familiar scowl Hitler often wore, the one that apparently results from having your humanity replaced with pure hatred and evil. Sometimes I really hate being from the South.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#2)
    by Mreddieb on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:43 PM EST
    I am forever in awe of African Americans and Africans. How could a people who have suffered such Humiliating indignities and State sanctioned sadistic cruelty respond with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, and South Africa's Mandella?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#3)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    I saw the documentary too Scar. Horrific. Ed, it's amazing that they don't harbor more hatred towards us. Even more to the point, IMO, is black mothers bearing children who will be born into a world where she cannot protect them, nor they her. It's a wonder to me that those moms had the faith and strength to send their progeny into the whips and chains with a shred of the hope for future generations that we harbor. For more, read Toni Morrison's "Beloved." I also recommend W.E.B. Dubois' "The souls of Black Folk". And for that Northern Negro perspective, Harriet Wilson's "Our Nig."

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#4)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    Actually - I'm in awe of any person of color who can withstand the sh*t. I saw the same documentary. Horrific is an excellent word. Mind-boggling and mind-numbing. I've read most of Toni Morrison's books. 'Beloved' was the first...there's a scene where a row of men are changed together, working in the mud; one goes down, they all go down. Morrison's writing of that with someone choking on mud, I swear I could see it and feel it. I was hooked. The Harlem Renaissance is one of my favorite periods and Zora Hurston is just about the greatest. This is my favoritest of poems, Marcus B. Christian - which holds true today as well with the James Dobson/Pat Robertson types...
    Dialect Quatrain -
    This ain't Torquemada 'Tain't no "Scourge o'God" Hit's jess li'l ole New Awleens's "Makeum-Tell-It-Squad."
    {From the 'American Negro Poetry' - An Anthology edited by Arna Bontemps}

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#5)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    Geezzzz!!! That should be "chained together."

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#6)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    Kitt, I loved "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and was going to list it also, but decided it wasn't relevant to slavery per se. Beloved... Oy. I remember that and most other scenes vividly. I went back for a reference once and ended up reading the whole thing again. The movie doesn't do it justice!

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#7)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    mfox... I don't want to see the movie. I think it would dissipate the impact of the book for me. I ran across this: "Three days later, Till's body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. It was weighted down by a 75# cotton gin fan that was tied around Till's neck with barbed wire. His face was so mutilated that when Wright identified the body, he could only do so based on the ring that Till had been wearing." (That ring was his father's who had died previously.) His mother had an open casket funeral..."Mamie wanted the world to know what had happened to her son. His right eye was missing, his nose was broken, and there was a hole on the side of his head..." Such ferocity, such hate. Somehow I tend to think of Mississippi although part of the south, alien territory. I knew a white teacher from Miss. who said the "pickaninnies jus' love me" and wondered why I looked disgusted and admonished her.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#8)
    by Jim Strain on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    I'm delighted that some small measure of justice may finally be done in this case, but I'm curious about one thing: What sort of evidence could possibly be derived from an autopsy at this point? The lethal injuries and mutilation suffered by this poor kid have all been amply documented, even if not by an official medical examiner. How will an autopsy help? Thanks.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#9)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    I know, Kitt. I remember that. His mother was a very brave woman (and very pissed, I'm sure). Imagine, folks, having something like 9/11 happening to "your people" and not being able to vent the anger we are so ready with - the only recourse being to invite the world to the Chicago ghettos to expose the mutilated face and body of your child to the world. The child being carried away from the OK city bombing, the Israeli child whose dead body leans out of a burned out shell of a bus, the abuses at Abu Grahib - all pictures that cried for justice. I ask, what justice did Mrs. Till get?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#10)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    "I ask, what justice did Mrs. Till get?" My American-Irish ancestors were the ones who were able to survive the genocide in Ireland and the trip to the US on just-decommissioned slave ships. About half died in transit because they'd paid in advance and therefore there was no reason for the shipowners to have enough stuff like food, water, or shelter for his cargo. My only non-Irish relative is my Italian grandfather who was a sharecropper/serf who came to the US after the landowner stole all the crops from his family in a bad year. His infant sister died that winter. I grew up back east and in my Catholic schools there were a lot of Cubans. A Cuban high-school friend of mine's uncle was personally shot in the head by Che Guevara for speaking out against the revolution. The list could go on forever. "I ask, what justice did Mrs. Tillor the Irish or Italian or Israeli or Palistinian or Cuban or whomever get?" I ask, at what point do you stop asking the question?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#11)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    Sarcastic, Yeah, and I know an old German stonemason whose father was shot in the basement by the SS when he was seven, and then his mother threw him and his sister (who didn't last through that winter) out of the house. The difference is that the Nazis and Che never promised liberty and justice for all.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#12)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    Good response, scar. You are right, of course. For me, personally, I do reach a point where I stop asking the question. It allows me to spend less time invested in my frustrations with the unstoppable unfairness of our world. Despite being right, I can't stop it. I'm happier that way - and I believe I owe it to my family (and society) to be that way. I believe we'd all be better off by asking the question less. I'm not trying to convince you.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#13)
    by Kitt on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    I believe we'd all be better off by asking the question less. Well, now - that is interesting and that may be. However, the question asked was 'what justice did Mrs. Till get?' She didn't and neither did her son.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#14)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    As a black man, who is native to the South, and who has family living in Mississippi, I'd like to speak to a few points: 1) Racism isn't just a southern thing. The historical perception has been that the South was a purgatory for black people, while the North offered opportunity. Sadly, racism exists in those areas, too. For example, I have heard Jasmine Guy (Whitley Gilbert on the '80s vintage TV series "A Different World") speak about facing racism in Boston. 2) Going to predominately white schools growing up, I didn't have a whole lot of inclination to hate anyone. It's sometimes frustrating to see things going on in the world and knowing that someone may be able to get away with something because of the color of their skin, but that works both ways. That doesn't constitute hate. I consider my school years a great training ground for working in business. The company I work for, diverse as it is, is still mainly white. And over the years, I've cultivate many rewarding business and personal relationships. 3) Here's something that may surprise a few of you: the white people I've met in Mississippi are pretty cool folks. Just like everywhere else in this great land, you've got good guys and you've got bad guys. In my mind, being white doesn't automatically equate to "bad guy", just as being black doesn't automatically mean "good guy". Hopefully, justice is achieved in this case, and finally this wound on the soul of America will begin to heal, permanently.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#16)
    by Che's Lounge on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    A Cuban high-school friend of mine's uncle was personally shot in the head by Che Guevara for speaking out against the revolution. Save your propaganda Sarc. When it comes to attacking your enemies, my-friend-knows-this-guy-who-had-a-relative is not going to pass as anything nearing fact. Do you know how hard I would be laughed out of here if I posted a quote from Che to make a point? But I'm sure the mafia is preferable to the system they have in your view. LOL

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#17)
    by Che's Lounge on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:46 PM EST
    TL, Sorry to go OT there for one comment but If you won't delete those kinds of lies, I will respond.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#15)
    by Ernesto Del Mundo on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:47 PM EST
    For anyone who really wants to send shockwaves through the brain...

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#18)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:47 PM EST
    Let's get back to Emmett Till.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#19)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:47 PM EST
    Justice delayed is justice denied. I am not sure I understand the target of a new investigation. Why not work on more current crimes? Why not put Kissinger on trial for the killing of General Rene Schneider in Chile? How about Alberto in the docket for his legal opinion that led to deaths and torture for prisoners held by US forces?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#20)
    by Che's Lounge on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:47 PM EST
    OK, let the poor soul rest in peace. Doesn't the FBI have better things to do with our money?

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#21)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:47 PM EST
    Che, My friend's father told us that it happened, I won't call him a liar. I understand your denial, however you must understand how insulting your moniker is to many. My comment was not intended to start a Guevera thread nor a response from you, I certainly didn't have you in mind when I wrote it, but rather it was a part of addressing much larger question posed by mfox. As far as Emmett Till is concerned, if the autopsy can prove who murdered him and get them convicted, then I'm all for it. If it can't, then I'm against it.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#22)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:48 PM EST
    Good post Claxton....

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#23)
    by DawesFred60 on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:48 PM EST
    I think it was the FBI Who had this poor guy killed. remember 2 out of 3 guys in the KKK,Were in fact FBI Informents and stool pigeons by 1940. but you will never see justice becuase the system will do its best for politically and race reasons to cover-it-up, once more. But maybe the government can't find a 95 year old scapegoat for race reasons?, sad,sad,world.

    Re: FBI Will Exhume Emmett Till's Body (none / 0) (#24)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:49 PM EST
    It's just pathetic to see the forensic effort go into a 40 year old crime instead of prosecuting the CIA and contractors who are beating people to death today in our ghost detainee system. It seems like a distraction to me. Rest in peace, Emmett. I grew up among the people who beat Emmett to death. They and their children are republicans today. They were dixiecrats and KKK members way back when. Party of Lincoln, I guess.