In the grainy 1955 footage, thousands of black people fill a church and spill out onto a Chicago street as they await a funeral viewing. The casket holds the remains of a 14-year-old boy. His name is Emmett Till.
A woman recoils in shock when she sees him. She throws her arms over her head.
Another woman gasps and clutches a handkerchief to her face.
A third simply faints.
Till's face is a monstrous mass of beaten flesh: an eye gouged out, the nose chopped up, the jaw sunken where teeth once had been, the head cleaved nearly in half and shot through with a bullet.
It was a face created by a savage racism of the kind endemic to old Mississippi, where Till was killed. It was a mother's nightmare, but also a nation's. And Mamie Till wanted the world to share it. She ordered the coffin be kept open.
Nearly 50 years later, the images of Emmett Till's body and the story of his death still resonate in a nation where the fault lines of race remain palpable. No wonder, then, that filmmakers and writers are reexamining the case and its historic importance.
"The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," directed by first-time documentarian Keith A. Beauchamp, premiered Nov. 16 at New York University's Cantor Film Center. Though still rough in lighting and sound, the film's array of interviews is gripping. Based on his research, including an interview with a witness who has never spoken publicly about the case, Beauchamp believes there are grounds for the Till case to be reinvestigated. No one was ever punished for the crime.
Another film, "The Murder of Emmett Till," directed by MacArthur "genius" awardee Stanley Nelson, offers a more polished and complete rendering of the Mississippi of the 1950s and the depth of people's struggles there. Nelson had been aware of Till all his life, but his interest was renewed when he heard a radio interview of Mamie Till Mobley early last year and realized that the Till case had not received the same contemporary attention as other cases from the civil rights era. His film will air in January on PBS's "American Experience."
Along with these films, a new book anthologizes the Till case: the murder, the trial, the newspaper coverage, the struggle the killing sparked between racists and rights activists, and the passing of the case into the realms of both history and myth. "The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative," is edited by Christopher Metress, an English professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. Published by the University of Virginia Press, the book was launched along with the Beauchamp film on Saturday, at an event attended by Mobley.
She turns 81 this week and she, too, is writing a book, with co-writer Christopher Benson, a lawyer for the Johnson Publishing Co. in Chicago and an author. Called "The Death of Innocence," it will be published next fall by Random House. Since her only child's death, Mobley has spent her life as a teacher, a mentor and a children's activist.
She describes her son as the "sacrificial lamb" whose death helped trigger the modern civil rights movement. What happened to Emmett Till was so terrible that it challenged African Americans to say enough is enough, to fight for their right to vote, to stop stepping off the sidewalk when a white person approached, to stop giving up their bus seats to white folk. Three months after Till's death, Rosa Parks did just that -- sparking the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that ushered in more than a decade of mass action to force the United States to change.
But in 1955, when Emmett Till traveled south from Chicago to visit relatives, Mississippi was still gripped by Jim Crow. The town of Money was smack in the middle of cotton-picking country, where blacks still worked on white plantations. It was not the kind of place where a black boy could sass a white woman and get away with it, though it has never been precisely clear just what the Chicago youth did or said to Carolyn Bryant, the white woman he encountered at a grocery store.
Mobley has said her son had a stutter that forced him to whistle to get certain sounds out. But one of the boys with Till on the day in question has claimed Till whistled on purpose -- not at Bryant, but at a checker game underway on the grocery store's porch. Whatever it was, it sent Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam out after this northern boy who did not know his place.
Milam and Bryant snatched Till from bed at his great uncle's cabin early one morning at gunpoint and took off with him. They battered him, shot him, used barbed wire to tie a 100-pound cotton-gin fan around his neck, then dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River. It was discovered three days later. Milam and Bryant were charged with murder.
Theirs was one of the first race crimes covered nationwide, by the television networks and big-city newspapers. Northern reporters especially were stunned at the milieu of the region. They wrote, for instance, of Sheriff H.C. Strider walking past the "Negro" press table inside the courtroom each day and saying, "Hello, niggers."
The all-white jury acquitted Milam and Bryant. But a few months later, in an interview with Look magazine, they confessed to the murder. Double jeopardy prevented their retrial. Both men are now deceased.
Debate continues to this day as to whether others were involved in the murder. But unlike other high-profile racial killings, such as the murder of NAACP activist Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, the Till case has never been reopened. And no one has ever been held to account for the murder.
"This is a case where justice still is begged," said Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review, which co-hosted the Beauchamp premiere. "It's an American sin that won't be forgotten."
Indeed, even decades later, the sense of threat conjured by the Till name is stoked each time a sensational racial killing occurs. When news breaks in cases such as that of James Byrd Jr. -- a black Texas man dragged to his death while chained behind a truck driven by rabidly racist white men in 1999 -- it conjures Emmett Till. In that case, it turns out, one of the men had an article about Till's murder in his apartment, along with white supremacist literature, police told reporters at the time.
For Nelson, a New Yorker, the Till case was "like the boogeyman. It was the worst thing that could happen to you, the worst barbarity possible for a black man in America come to life. So I've always lived with it." He was 4 years old when Till was killed.
Beauchamp, the other filmmaker, wasn't even born then. He is only 31. Still, Emmett Till has been a haunting presence in his life. He was 10 years old in his home town of Baton Rouge, La., when he flipped through an old copy of Jet magazine and landed on the picture of Till's brutalized body. "It freaked me out," he says. His parents explained to him who Till was and what happened to him.
Emmett Till, he said, "is deeply embedded in the African American community, especially the psyche of the black man."
Metress, the author, said the saga of Emmett Till represents "innocence destroyed, with justice denied. He's like this ghost that haunts race relations in America."
None of these men could readily answer the question: Why now? What has sparked these many separate efforts to reexamine the Till case?
Benson, Mobley's co-writer, turned the question around.
"I'm wondering whether there's a resurgence of interest or whether we in fact ever lost interest," he said. "We've gone through a little better than two generations since Emmett's murder. People who lived through it were deeply affected by it. People who learned about it over time, little black kids, came into the Emmett Till story as something of a rite of passage. We learned that this most horrible thing could happen to a black child. In many ways, it was our introduction to race relations."