The seventy-minute documentary film, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, is a genuinely shocking account of the brutal murder of a fourteen year Chicago African-American boy in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. His simple offense was whistling at a white woman in a public place. The Emmett Till story shocked many Americans, especially outside the Deep South, and thereby became the real public spark for the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, you cannot understand the rise of the Civil Rights era without this story. Before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., before James Meredith and Medgar Evers, there was Emmett Louis Till. And there his very brave mother Mamie Till-Mobley, who courageously insisted on having an open coffin at his funeral so that the entire nation could really see what happened to her boy. (The sheriff in Mississippi had tried to bury Emmett Till’s body before anyone could see it.)

Emmett Till, the only child of Mamie Till-Mobley of Chicago, was sent by train to visit relatives in the Mississippi Delta in August of 1955. When young Emmett, a prankster and fun-loving teen P_emmett4
but a also good young man, entered a small department store in a small Mississippi town, the white woman who managed the story left a little time later to get into her car. Emmett whistled at her and at which point she went into a rage, took offense and reported this to her husband. Later that evening two white men entered the home of Emmett’s Great-Uncle and abducted him. They brutally beat him, castrated him, cut off various body parts and shot him through the head. The crime was so horrific that the news quickly spread, especially in the Chicago press. An appeal was even made to the Eisenhower administration to take federal action to protect blacks in the South. The whole era of lynchings and unaccounted for deaths finally became a huge story people could see and feel.

The two men who abducted young Emmett Louis Till were tried, by an all white jury, and quickly acquitted, in the face of eyewitness evidence to the abduction itself. (A few years later, since the law of double jeopardy applied, the two men sold their story rights to a news magazine for $4,000 and admitted they had committed the crime!)

The director of this film, Keith A. Beauchamp, spent nearly ten years pursuing the Till story and making this powerful documentary. He spent eight years alone talking to Emmett’s mother, again and again, before she passed away. Ph_emmettmamie20051st_2
Beauchamp writes: “My interest in this story was neither an accident nor a coincidence. It was an act of the Creator to bring this story to fruition at this time and in this season—’A time and a season for all things.’"

The film is also associated with the Harvard Civil Rights Project, a non-profit study center at the university that sometimes offers studies that have led to controversial conclusions that I question in terms of their actual contribution to solving the racial divide that still exists in America. A useful panel discussion from the Harvard Center is included on the DVD. This project offers numerous helpful resources for anyone interested in the protection and advance of civil rights in America. If you believe, as many white people do believe, that the civil rights era is over and all that needs to be done has been done you ought to watch this DVD and visit the Harvard site both. Major reports and policy papers on the subjects of desegregation, student diversity, special education, dropouts, affirmative action, housing and transportation equity are on the site and provide ample evidence that though we made great gains in the 1960s a great deal of this stopped by the 1970s and far more work needs to be done to insure a just and equal society under the law.

A simple Google search on the name Emmett Louis Till will lead you to numerous accounts and stories from the past fifty-plus years. This alone is worth your time. 

In the light of the Jeremiah Wright story of just a few weeks ago I resolved to learn more about the past and present of African-American experience in our society. Watching this DVD provided me with a powerful incentive to learn even more. It also helps me put the whole Obama-Wright controversy into a historical context that is needed if we are to advance the discussion to new and important levels. Christians should desire to do this if anyone should. I think you will find this documentary both troubling and deeply informative.

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  1. Rich March 26, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    This is the reason I admire you so much, John – you always seek to understand and learn, you refuse to take the easy road of simplistic answers. Thanks for challenging us all to do likewise! I’ve put this DVD on hold and look forward to seeing it. By the way, just watched the latest PBS Documentary on Jonestown last night – Wow! Well worth seeing if you get the chance.

  2. candy March 26, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Dear Pastor, random reading of blogs brought me to yours. Perhaps it is God’s beacon of light guiding me to a pastor whom I can confide in without being judged by the people around me. Can I talk to you about the burdens within my heart? The peace that eludes me? The unhealed hurts and unmet needs often preached about? Please email me if you have the time to listen to a random stranger across the globe. And I pray that God’s healing touch will ensure a full recovery upon your surgery.
    God Bless You.
    Candy 🙂

  3. Nathan Petty April 22, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    I wanted to drop you a quick line in thanks for the movie recommendation on the life and death of Emmett Till.  I watched it Sunday evening and was moved by the profound simplicity of the narrative.
    When I watch the footage of the two white men who initiated the murder of Emmett Till, I think of who they were, the environment which nurtured them, which conditioned them to view their crime as an act of righteousness.  I think of the values imparted by their family, their school and their friends.  I think of the church they might have attended, of the sermons and teaching heard.  Given the place, perhaps it was a Baptist church.  I think of the god they may have prayed to in seeking justification for their involvement in the brutal murder of a teenager who just didn’t know the ways of Money, Mississippi.
    I also think of the nervous fear which I saw in the faces of these men, fear which impelled them to act.  Faces with a false bravado.  Faces which could not hide the fear, the fear of change.  I am reminded how many times it is fear which Satan uses to drive men to sin, including this example of personal violence.
    I think of the many vile letters sent to Emmett Till’s mother and grandmother.  I think of the people who wrote those letters.  I think of the churches they were then attending. 
    I think that if my race were black I might be bitter and consumed by hatred, even now.
    Finally I think, given different circumstances of time and place, that it might have been me sitting in that courtroom as a defendant.
    Powerful film, great recommendation.
    Thank you.

  4. Ashlynn February 9, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    Every time I read about poor Emmett it brings tears to my eyes. How could such well respected men kill a young kid like Emmett? If you think about it why would they even do it because he said ” Bye baby” to an adult white woman? That’s nothing compared to what kids do these days. I’m 14 and I know from experience. All Prayers out to you Emmett.
    May Nothing like this happen again!
    Love to you Emmett

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