What birthed the civil rights movement? The question is still widely debated, but within this decades-long fight to eradicate racial discrimination, there’s one event not found in most history books—the horrific lynching of Emmett Till. Just a few months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, the brutal murder of a 14-year-old Black boy was already making an impact.
On August 28, 1955, the Chicago-born teenager was visiting family in Money, Mississippi when he was accused of flirting with a white female cashier, Carolyn Bryant, at a local grocery store and targeted by local white men. The group—including the husband of the cashier, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam—would later kidnap, bludgeon and shoot Till in the head before tying his lifeless body to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire and throwing him in the Tallahassee River.
This wasn’t the first time a Black man would be a victim of racially motivated lynching—and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But Mamie Till-Mobley didn’t want her son’s death to be in vain. Despite being so horribly disfigured that he was barely recognizable as a human, Mrs. Till-Mobley insisted on a funeral with an open casket. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously declared.
For the 100,000 people who attended Till’s funeral, viewing his body “was like looking into a mirror,” says filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who made a 2005 documentary about the case. If that wasn’t chilling enough, two Black publications, Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender, later published graphic photos of Till’s deformed face alongside a handsome portrait of the martyred teen.
But the momentum behind Till’s death didn’t last. A month after Till’s lynching, Bryant and Milam were tried before an all-white, all-male jury, and quickly acquitted. Until her death in 2003, Till’s mother fought tirelessly to get politicians, law enforcement, journalists and other activists to help find justice for the crime, but she never received redemption for her son in her lifetime. Now 65 years later, Till’s death has found new meaning with the killing of George Floyd.
“We should never forget that we’ve never had justice in his case,” says former United States Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. He certainly won’t. Espy’s family, which owned Century Burial Association in Greenwood, Mississippi, was involved in the initial process of recovering Till’s body before it was eventually sent to a white-owned funeral home and later flown to Chicago, where the funeral services took place.
Espy, echoing the late John Lewis’ sentiment that “Emmett Till was my George Floyd,” has also woken up to the fact that he’s been alive for two seemingly disparate eras that somehow are not too different. The parallels between the deaths of these two Black men, Espy says, are undeniable.
To Beauchamp, Floyd’s death brings even more meaning to Till’s. “I’ve always known that Emmett Till was the [civil rights movement] catalyst, but I didn’t know the importance of this case until now,” he says. “We have never put the story into context and identified it in the same manner that we see today. When I saw Emmett Till [in that Jet magazine], I felt vulnerable. I felt that way again when I saw George Floyd. These people are unintentional martyrs.”
For many, the two are also undeniable heroes. Much of what happened to Till helped form the basis of Espy’s current campaign to represent Mississippi in the Senate. A big part of his agenda is addressing the state’s racist history still reflected in existing monuments, like the statue of James Zachariah George, a prominent member of the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890 who stripped voting rights for Black people. “I want to take that statue down,” says Espy. “He was the architect of doom in Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, in response to vandalism that destroyed various Emmett Till landmarks in 2014, the leaders behind the Emmett Till Interpretive Center helped launch the Emmett Till Memorial Project, a virtual tour led by executive director Patrick Weems and University of Kansas professor and Remembering Emmett Till author Dave Tell.
The center also enlisted architects to convert the Tallahatchie County Courthouse where the murder trial took place into a museum and educational center. The ongoing $7.5 million restoration project, led by Belinda Stewart Architects, began in 2007. Financial support came from former Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Morgan Freeman’s Tallahatchie River Foundation.
“The courtroom was a literal standing example of injustice,” says Benjamin Saulsberry, the museum’s director. “We wanted it to have functionality. It gives that juxtaposition of where we have been and where we’re trying to go. We have the responsibility of taking truth and using truth to come together and build new narrative and new stories.”
It might have been “a story that was supposed to be forgotten,” says Beauchamp, but the filmmaker is proud to be among the people preserving it. His relentless efforts to uncover the truth about Till’s case in the early 1990s helped him form a close relationship with Mamie Till-Mobley before she passed. She gave him her blessing to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with some of the murder witnesses, including Till’s family members, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. and Simeon Wright, which Beauchamp would eventually compile for his 2005 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Filmmaking was never part of his long term plan—“my parents gave me the funds they set aside for me to go to law school with,” he says—but the urge to tell Till’s story sparked the new passion.
In 2004, the Department of Justice tapped Beauchamp to help assist in the investigation tied to the first reopening of Till’s case, forcing Beauchamp to turn over much of his findings and omit them from documentary inclusion. His participation in the case failed to yield any new charges, but Beauchamp isn’t ready to quit: Along with Whoopi Goldberg and producers Frederick Zollo, Barbara Broccoli and Thomas Levine, he’s now coproducing a feature film based on Till’s saga. “I’m using as it my activism tool,” Beauchamp says, and this time he’s not holding anything back.
Till’s cousin Deborah Watts, cofounder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, welcomes champions like Beauchamp. “Emmett’s murder impacted so many people,” says Watts. “Bob Dylan did a song. The NAACP used his story to tie in to voting rights. This is a huge part of the legacy and we appreciate the different efforts across genres as long as it’s honorable and as long as it’s the truth.”
Watts was just a toddler when Till was killed and the truth about her cousin’s death was originally too much for her to face. She recalls ripping up commemorative journals of Till, created by photojournalist Ernest Withers, out of anger and grief. Now, in some original copies spared from her rage, she recognizes the significance. “It’s a valuable piece of history right now.” It’s also a reminder of the work she still needs to accomplish and the promises she made to Till’s mother to keep his legacy alive. That vow inspired the birth of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation in 2005 and its continuing efforts to preserve his memory.
Watts acknowledges that little progress has been made since 1955. The recent Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act her foundation bolstered is making its way through Congress, but not much has changed about the case that was reopened for the second time in 2018 following Carolyn Bryant Donham’s admission that the allegations she made against Till were false, in Timothy Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till.
Despite this new revelation, one very bitter reality remains: Till’s actual murderers were never convicted. (They are protected by the double jeopardy clause, which precludes them from being tried again.) Donham, the white female cashier considered to be an accomplice to his death, is still alive (had he lived, Till would be just 79 today), and her record remains clean. Can she even be charged 65 years later? Some experts say an obstruction of justice charge could still be viable.
Ahead of the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder, on August 28, Watts and the team at the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation are hard at work. The group is behind a year-long #JusticeForEmmettTill campaign and petition supported by many celebrities, most notably actor Taye Diggs. It encourages the public to press for indictment and charges linked to Till’s case as it remains open and unresolved.
Watts, of course, wants full justice. But she also has a plan that doesn’t require litigation: “We’re asking for an apology to our family from the federal government, the Department of Justice, the state of Mississippi and its local authorities,” she says. And perhaps, above all, an apology from Carolyn Bryant Donham.
Even if that happens, she says, there will still be work to be done. The fight for Black justice didn’t begin with Emmett Till—and it doesn’t end with him. But his undeserving death that galvanized a civil rights movement warrants the resurfaced attention during a new, budding awakening. Black Lives Matter is only strengthened by holding his legacy close.
“Emmett Till is Anne Frank to Black America,” says Beauchamp. “His death serves as a reminder of injustice as well as hope and change.”
–Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff
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