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Embers of an Incendiary Killing Still Burn

The death of Emmett Till in 1955 helped spark the civil rights struggle. Filmmakers lead a call to resolve the case's lingering mysteries.

January 20, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Half a century later, the image has lost none of its power to repulse and horrify.

It is of a black boy's face, though it looks nothing like that, so thorough was the savagery. The eyes are not where they belong, the lips are bloated and the swollen cheeks crumpled in a way that suggests a rubber monster mask more than the face of a boy barely 14 years old.

The youth was Emmett Till, and the story of his unavenged slaying -- gouged into the nation's consciousness by that ghastly picture -- became an allegory for the racial hatreds and warped justice of the segregated South.

For 47 years, the case -- in which Till was kidnapped, beaten and killed after supposedly whistling at a white woman at a sundries store in rural Money, Miss. -- has lived an odd double life.

It helped ignite the civil rights movement and became a touchstone in American race relations, alluded to in poetry, song and fiction. Yet the case received little serious attention after an all-white jury in 1955 took 67 minutes to acquit two white men of mutilating Till and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River, tethered by barbed wire to a cotton-gin fan.

The kidnapping and killing occurred a few days after Till, a Chicagoan visiting relatives in Mississippi, was said to have let loose a wolf whistle in the direction of the wife of store owner Roy Bryant.

Although Bryant and his co-defendant, J.W. Milam, are dead, the case is now the subject of a flurry of attention by filmmakers and writers amid calls for authorities to open a new investigation in hopes of bringing to justice any participants who might still be alive. One of two new documentary films on the case airs today on PBS.

The director of a second film, which is nearing completion, claims to have unearthed evidence pointing to the involvement of as many as five additional men -- three of them white and two black -- who he says are still living. A Kansas City, Kan.-based rights group, Justice Campaign of America, launched a bid this month to have the case reopened by Mississippi or federal authorities.

"If you commit a crime, justice must be done. Either justice or mercy, one of the two," said Simeon Wright, a second cousin of Till's. Wright was 12 and bunking with the victim when, he said, Bryant and Milam -- armed with a .45-caliber pistol -- showed up at the family's home a few days after the incident at the store.

Wright, a 60-year-old pipe fitter who lives outside Chicago, said the memory of Till's kidnapping in the middle of the night haunts him still. "I can see him putting his right leg in his pants," Wright said by telephone from his home. "He walked out without a fight."

What happened after that has remained largely a mystery.

Both of the documentaries, featuring witnesses too frightened to speak publicly before, argue that several men helped Bryant and his half brother, Milam, kidnap Till and then cover up the murder by washing blood from Milam's pickup. The films stop short of specifying names, except for those of two black helpers who long ago fell under suspicion but were never charged.

Stanley Nelson, who directed "The Murder of Emmett Till," an hourlong film, said any aging accomplices could be offered immunity from prosecution in exchange for their testimony. "It's kind of now or never," said Nelson, who won a MacArthur fellowship last fall. "With a little effort ... there's a lot of information out there."

Keith Beauchamp, a New York-based filmmaker who is putting the final touches on a 90-minute work called "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," is coupling his documentary with direct appeals to authorities to reopen the case on the basis of his findings. Among those Beauchamp tracked down and interviewed during seven years of research is one of the black men suspected of being an accomplice, Henry Lee Loggins, who vanished at the time of the trial. In the film, Loggins denies taking part in the killing.

Mississippi officials say they stand ready to receive new leads. "We welcome any evidence that anyone wishes to provide to us to review. That's what we're waiting on," said Jonathan Compretta, a special assistant attorney general in Mississippi.

The push for a renewed inquiry in the Till slaying comes after convictions in the South in recent years in connection with a number of killings from the civil rights era, including a 1966 firebombing in Mississippi that killed civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer, and the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that claimed the lives of four black girls, ages 11 to 14.

In the Till case, Bryant and Milam were acquitted on the fifth day of a trial that was conducted a month after the boy was seized on Aug. 28, 1955, and later found dead. Witnesses said Till had whistled at Carolyn Bryant while buying candy with friends at the couple's store. (She would testify that Till grabbed her and made lewd remarks, though Wright and other witnesses who were at the store insist that never occurred.)

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