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'Murder of Emmett Till, The'

Friday, March 28, 2003

By Barry Parris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The modern American civil rights movement did not begin with Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on that segregated Alabama bus. It really began 100 days earlier with a less-remembered but more compelling catalyst in 1955: the murder of Emmett Till. "The Murder of Emmett Till."

 
 
'The Murder of
Emmett Till'

CRITIC'S CALL:

PG-13 in nature for violent images

   
 

Producer-director Stanley Nelson's documentary by that name is an admirably tight, 53-minute account of the Southern crime that rallied the North. Till, a high-spirited, 14-year-old Chicago boy, went down for a summer cotton-picking job to live with relatives and get a taste of his ancestors' plantation lives in the Mississippi delta -- "the most Southern place on earth." In the previous 75 years, there had been some 500 lynchings of black men accused of associating with white women.

The closest thing to civilization in those parts was a town named Money, in which ramshackle Bryant's grocery was the closest thing to a store. After buying two cents' worth of candy there one day, young Emmett made the fatal mistake of giving the attractive Mrs. Bryant a wolf-whistle on the way out.

A few days later, he was abducted at gunpoint, beaten and shot through the head, his mutilated body later found with a 75-pound weight on its neck in the local river.

Equally enraged as grief-stricken, his mother, Mamie Till, had her son's corpse returned to Chicago and displayed in an open coffin for 50,000 mourners -- and the national news media -- to see. Meanwhile in Mississippi, the white community rallied behind defendants J.W. Miland and Roy Bryant.

A few brave black witnesses risked their lives to tell the truth at the trial, but it took the all-white-male jury only an hour to acquit. Perpetrators Miland and Bryant, protected from any further charges, sold their story (fully admitting the murder) to Look magazine for $4,000. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, backed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, refused to reopen the case.

Mamie Till -- no Mamie Eisenhower -- refused to shut up. She spent, and is still spending, her life keeping alive the memory of her son and his fate, calling him "the sacrificial lamb of the civil rights movement."

Beautifully produced by the PBS American Experience series, "The Murder of Emmett Till" provides no propaganda -- just newsreel film clips and first-person interviews. Most fascinating is the footage of Mississippi Sen. James Eastland -- close pal of South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, recently championed by Trent Lott -- proudly declaring that no lily-white Mississippi boys and girls would ever sit at a school desk next to blacks.

It is impolite to note that these are the same racist politicians who were welcomed into the Republican Party of the Nixon-Reagan-Bush era and who continue to hold power today.

Nelson's "Emmett Till" and Amnesty International's film festival sponsorship are to be commended for reminding us.

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