In 1955, This Black Life Mattered
Decades before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death for looking suspicious as he walked home with a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a pack of Skittles—before 17-year-old Jordan Davis was gunned down at a gas station because his rap music was too loud, and before 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, after being stopped for not walking on the sidewalk—the death of another African American teen, killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman, forced America to realize that black lives matter.
Sixty years ago Friday, 14-year-old Chicago resident Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, while visiting his uncle. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had his body, which had been tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown in the Tallahatchie River, returned to his hometown. There, she held an open-casket funeral so the world could see how her son had been lynched, beaten, and shot in the head and how one of his eyes had been gouged out. Jet magazine published photographs of the teen’s bloated, mutilated body, shocking black folks across the nation and galvanizing them into action.
Brooklyn, New York–based filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp has long worked to ensure that Till’s story is remembered. His award-winning 2004 documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, led the U.S. government to reopen its investigation of the Till case in 2005. Now, Beauchamp has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the production of Till, a feature film that will put the horrific story of Till’s 1955 murder in front of audiences at the local multiplex.
“His case is so relevant today because he is the Anne Frank for Black America,” Beauchamp wrote in an email to TakePart. “Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we must continue to tell Emmett’s story over and over again—or as Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, would say, ‘We must continue to tell Emmett’s story until man’s consciousness is risen, only then there will be justice for Emmett Till.’ ”
Till’s story is intimately connected, wrote Beauchamp, to the modern deaths of black youths such as Martin, Davis, and Brown, whose 2014 shooting death by police officer Darren Wilson catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed, during prayers at a luncheon on Friday attended by members of Till’s family, one cousin acknowledged the rise of the movement.
Emmett Till's family gathers for luncheon 60 years after his lynching. "Black Lives Matter" cousin says during prayer pic.twitter.com/L1HvW9x2fa— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) August 28, 2015
“Whenever there’s a death of an unarmed black male (young or old) by police or when we don’t receive the ‘courtroom justice’ that we are longing for, Emmett Till’s name always metaphorically comes to fruition,” wrote Beauchamp.
He hopes the film, which will be based on his documentary, will serve as a catalyst for change, just as Till’s murder mobilized protesters 60 years ago. “After the murder of Emmett Till, people were outraged and the Civil Rights Movement mobilized,” he wrote.
The spark seems already to have ignited: Recent deaths of African American youths and adults have generated violent protests and raised awareness of racial injustice in the United States. A survey released in early August by the Pew Research Center found that almost 60 percent of Americans think the nation “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” In 2009, just 26 percent of U.S. residents said they saw racism as a major problem facing society, but now nearly half do. Some folks are taking concrete action. Last week, a group of activists launched “Campaign Zero,” an effort focused on police reform and holding policy makers and politicians accountable.
Getting Till made in an industry called out last December by Chris Rock for being “kinda racist” hasn’t been easy. “Over the years, it’s been a struggle to get major studios interested in a story that many deemed should never be told,” Beauchamp wrote. “We are producing this film as an independent because we want to make sure our film will get made.” However, Whoopi Goldberg and several other Hollywood heavy hitters, such as Frederick Zollo, producer of Mississippi Burning, are now on board.
“Emmett Till’s brutal death at the hands of ignorant, brutish people exposes the Jim Crow–era South that gave the implicit OK to uphold that kind of racism without any real fear of repercussions. Today, the return of rampant, unchallenged racism cries out for the telling of Emmett Till’s story again,” Goldberg told Variety.
Beauchamp launched the Kickstarter campaign to help garner grassroots support for the project and defray development costs. “Considering our current state in this country, I truly believe that this story will have a great impact on the consciousness of America once again,” he wrote.