By Admin | January 26, 2003

Most Americans know who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was. Not as many but still a substantial number are probably familiar with the events surrounding Rosa Parks. Few, however, have probably heard of Emmett Till. Yet, the case can be made that without Emmett Till, the American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, commonly credited to Dr. King and/or Mrs. Parks’ famous bus ride, would have been significantly delayed…if it had ever been launched at all. That’s because every revolution like the civil rights movement needs a catalyst to explode. Emmett Till, according to Stanley Nelson’s sobering documentary “The Murder of Emmett Till,” was just that catalyst.

The Deep South in general and Mississippi in particular operated under a de facto apartheid system in 1955. Unbeknownst to — or ignored by — most Americans in the north, blacks in the deep south were routinely subjected to beatings, lynchings and other vicious hate crimes at the hands of whites at just the slightest hint of a provocation. It was in this segregated land of Trent Lott’s wet dreams that a young black boy named Emmett Till, just turned fourteen, and his sixteen year old cousin Wheeler Parker were visiting from Chicago.

Despite the warnings from Emmett’s mother Mamie about the dangers for Negroes in the south and about the importance of staying as deferential as possible towards whites, young Emmett apparently made the mistake of whistling at a white store owner’s attractive wife on his way out after buying some candy. A few nights later, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and her brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Emmett at gunpoint from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night. Three days later, his mutilated body was found in the muddy Tallahatchie River, anchored down by a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

Emmett’s story would have ended here, just another in a long line of anonymous racial atrocities, had it not been for a fateful decision made by Mrs. Till. She instructed the undertaker to leave Emmett’s casket open and his mangled face and body untouched so that the entire world could see the grisly results of hate. Some 5,000 people viewed Emmett’s remains and, combined with pictures of the body published in Jet magazine and the kangaroo court acquittal of the crime’s perpetrators by an all-male, all-white jury, the murder of Emmett Till galvanized the black community. (Especially when, immune from further prosecution, the killers confessed to the crime to a magazine for a fee.) One hundred days after the discovery of Emmett’s body, Mrs. Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man and soon after that, Dr. King emerged in the nation’s consciousness. The civil rights movement had its catalyst.

In spite of such Neanderthals as Sen. Lott, America is slowly coming to terms with its overtly racist recent past, as evidenced by the revisiting of such similar cases as Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer and the Birmingham church bombing. In that sense then, “The Murder of Emmett Till” isn’t really breaking any new ground. Which isn’t to say that the combination of astonishing newsreel footage from the trial intercut with interviews of some of those involved doesn’t make for riveting viewing in its own right, because it does.

Particularly poignant is Mamie Till herself, who ironically just passed away a few days ago. Stoic, dignified and as resolute as she tells her boy’s tale near the end of her life as she was nearly half a century ago, Mrs. Till invokes an intangible compassion that springs from her unmistakable charisma. Judging from what we see in this film, anyone would be proud to call her “Mom.”

Nelson does an excellent job; not only in relaying the brutal events of that long ago August night, but also in tying it to his thesis that the murder of this mischievous young boy for an ill-timed wolf-whistle was the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. In that sense then, “The Murder of Emmett Till” is a film that’s as much a well-executed history lesson, as it is a chilling tale in its own right.

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