• U.S.

Revisiting a Martyrdom

4 minute read
David Van Biema

A woman’s voice in the dark, a voice that meant death. That is what they talk about, the children who survived, even as the decades pass and their hair grays. Not just about the two famous killers with a flashlight and a gun wresting a boy from his bed 49 years ago, but about those who helped them. Simeon Wright, who was lying next to his cousin Emmett Till that fateful Mississippi night, remembers the intruders well enough. But, he tells TIME, he also recalls a third man out on the porch. And he repeats his deceased father Mose’s recollection that “they took Emmett out to the truck to ask ‘Is this the one?’ And a female voice said, ‘He’s the one.'” Mose Wright used to repeat this often. But now a nation is listening again.

Last week the Department of Justice announced it was going to crack open history and see if anything new crawled out. Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta described a joint project with Mississippi to reopen the 1955 inquiry into the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till because “information has been brought to our attention that suggests that other individuals may have been involved in the murder.” A main impetus, he said, was an unfinished documentary by novice director Keith Beauchamp.

Till’s murder in Mississippi was the first great symbolic martyrdom of the civil rights era. After playfully whistling at a 21-year-old white woman named Carolyn Bryant, Till was ripped from his bed at 2:30 a.m. His corpse was later fished out of the nearby Tallahatchie River. His killers had severely beaten him, gouged out his eyes and put a hole in his head, through which his distraught mother said she could see daylight. Thousands of people came to his open-casket funeral, the black magazine Jet ran photos of his ruined face, and by the time an all-white jury acquitted Bryant’s husband Roy and his half brother J.W. Milam in a sham trial, Till’s death was a touchstone for black America, fueling support for the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that same year. Whites were slower on the uptake, prompting a young singer named Bob Dylan to warn in 1963, “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.”

Yet the crime was more complex than the myth. Bryant and Milam, who later confessed in Look magazine, were perfect, arrogant villains, but few in Money, Miss., thought they had acted alone. Civil rights leaders and the African-American press turned up witnesses–some suggesting that two of Milam’s black employees were accomplices. (Both denied it.) Mose Wright often described that fatal female voice, speculating that it must have been Carolyn Bryant’s. (She could not be reached for comment.) Till’s indomitable mother Mamie Till Mobley and her supporters vainly lobbied the government to reinvestigate. She died last year.

Where they failed, Beauchamp’s work on The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till apparently succeeded. (Another documentary on the subject, The Murder of Emmett Till by director Stanley Nelson, aired on PBS last year.) Initially researching a feature film, Beauchamp, 32, says, “I realized that I wasn’t doing interviews–I was taking depositions.” He says he found witnesses, including a woman who asserts on film that she saw a black man aiding the murderers’ search for Till, and that Milam’s green Chevy pickup was not alone when leaving the kidnapping, but one of a “caravan.” Beauchamp eventually concluded that as many as 11 people–six of them white and five black–were complicit, and presented his findings to Mississippi authorities in February. Quizzed about the witness count last week, local district attorney Joyce Chiles replied, “That number would probably best come from Keith Beauchamp. The only thing we’re doing is following up on statements of people he has already located.”

That is fine with Simeon Wright. He loves the film. He differs with those who see little point to the investigation now that Bryant and Milam are dead. “Would it be proper for us to say Mohammed Atta and all his boys are dead, so let Sept. 11 die?” he asks. “We can know who was in the conspiracy. They’re in their 70s now. Why die with this stain on their hands?” And he adds, “Who knows? Maybe the state will call and say, ‘Mr. Wright, we’re so sorry your family suffered this grave injustice in Mississippi.'” –Reported by Alice Jackson Baughn/Money, David Thigpen/Chicago and Deirdre van Dyk/New York

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