GWEN IFILL: Now, a brutal killing revisited. Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he supposedly whistled at a white woman. Two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, were arrested and tried for the murder. They were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Yesterday the Justice Department announced it is reopening the case.In part because of a recent documentary that alleged the investigation was flawed and key witnesses never testified. That documentary, "The Murder of Emmett Till," aired last year on the PBS program "American Experience." Here, an excerpt with three of the possible new witnesses. It begins with the voice of Warren Hampton, who in 1955 was a young boy living in the area. He describes what he saw the night that Emmett Till disappeared.
WARREN HAMPTON: I was playing beside the road, and I saw Mr. Milam in the truck coming by, and it had a had a cover over the door, we called a tarpaulin. And I heard somebody hollered on the truck.
WILLIE REED: I could hear all of this beating, and I could hear this beating and I could here this crying and crying and beating. And I'm saying to myself, "they beating somebody up there." I heard that beating even before I got to... even before I got to the barn. I passed; they still was beating, they still was beating. I could hear it. Milam came out. So when he said, "Did you hear anything? " I saw him. He had a khaki pants on, he had a green nylon shirt, and a .45 on his side. So I said, "No." I said, "I didn't heard anything," I said, "anything."
OUDIE BROWN: I was coming through there that morning. Too-tight was out there washing the truck out, out washing J.W. Milam's truck out. I said, "Where all that blood's come from?"He laughed. The boy laughed, that's what he did. He said, "There's a shoe here. There's one of his shoes here." I said "Whose?" That's the way I said it. I say "Whose?" "Emmett Till's shoe."
GWEN IFILL: Joining us now is producer and director Stanley Nelson. Next Monday night, he will receive a Peabody Award for "the Murder of Emmett Till." Stanley, welcome.
STANLEY NELSON: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us your reaction to news that the Justice Department decided yesterday to reopen this case.
STANLEY NELSON: Well, you know, I was in shock. I guess I'm still in shock. You know, it's been almost 50 years, and then suddenly the ball starts rolling faster and faster and faster. And then yesterday they announced that the case is going to be reopened, so it's... it's a great thing.
GWEN IFILL: When you went down to do this documentary, did it seem to you that this case had ever been fully investigated in the first place?
STANLEY NELSON: No, I think that's one of the things that we quickly saw when we went down to Mississippi. You know, people just started coming forward very, very quickly. And we really weren't... we really weren't looking for new evidence. We were doing a historical documentary. But all of a sudden, people just started talking, and we realized that the case was never investigated at all, really.
GWEN IFILL: What's the difference between a historical documentary and an investigative documentary?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think an historical documentary, you know, we're looking at history. We're trying to shed new, shed some new light on it, shine some new light on history, but we're not really, we're not trying to dig up new evidence. We're not really investigating. You know, we want to let people look at this story that I think had been largely forgotten.
GWEN IFILL: So you say that there were people down there who never testified. Were they never called? Were they just too scared to testify? How is it that these recollections only came to light so much later?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think it's a bit of both. I mean, I think some people were scared to testify clearly. People said they were scared. Oudie Brown said he was scared and he actually drove to the courthouse and he got to the courthouse and he said, you know, he saw white men standing there with guns around the courthouse, and he said, you know, "I'm not going in there," so he never testified. I think you had other people like Willie Reed who did testify but nobody really ever listened. He always said that he saw three or four men take Emmett Till into that barn, but nobody was really listening.
GWEN IFILL: Well, how did you find these people if investigators weren't able to?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think that the key to it is that the investigators really weren't looking. You know, the sheriff down there, Strider, at the time, you know, clearly said, you know, that he wasn't going to investigate the case. There is evidence that he actually hid witnesses away in jail so they wouldn't testify.
GWEN IFILL: So what should investigators be looking at now that this is back on the front burner?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think, you know, that there are some people in our documentary that are fairly easy to talk to. I think that to my understanding, Caroline Bryant, the woman that was whistled at, is alive and may have been there that night. And I think they should also just talk to anybody they can. I think that there's a lot of people there who are not only able to talk, but are really willing to talk. I mean, I think that this is a burden that they've carried because they did not testify 50 years ago.
GWEN IFILL: I read today that this is the 22nd civil rights-era killing that has been reopened for reexamination since 1989. What does this tell us in general about the way these cases were treated then and the way they're being treated now?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I think in general the cases weren't investigated at all back then. You know, I mean, this was something... you know, to kill a black man back in the Deep South back then, you know, it wasn't investigated. It was just kind of swept under the rug.
I mean, the amazing thing about the Emmett Till case was that there was a trial at all, even though the trial was really a joke, but that there was a trial and that there was a trial and that they did put these men on the stand. But I think now these cases are being re-looked at, and I think that's a good thing. You know, I think that there's no statute of limitations on murder for a reason. And, you know, even after 50 years, it's a great thing that the case is opened up.
GWEN IFILL: You knew and worked with Mamie Till Mobley on, Emmett Till's mother, on this documentary. She passed away in January of last year, shortly before your documentary aired. Is this what she wanted? Is this the vindication she was looking for?
STANLEY NELSON: I think... yeah, I think she would have been happy that the case was reopened. But I think, you know, we have to understand that Mamie Till's focus really was to make sure that this never happened again.
I mean, I think that was really her focus. Her focus wasn't on revenge. You know, her focus was on justice. Her focus was on making sure that nobody else was ever murdered in this brutal way.
GWEN IFILL: And finally, Stanley , this murder happened a year after the Brown Vs. the Board of Education case was decided by the Supreme Court, making education equal. Was there, is there any way, looking back on nearly the 50th year anniversary of Emmett Till's murder, any connection between those two events?
STANLEY NELSON: Sure. I think that one of the connections that we make in the film was that the Brown Versus Board of Ed decision had just been a year earlier, and that in some ways, you know, the world... the world that Emmett Till traveled through in the South was seething because of this decision.
All of a sudden, the South was facing the fact that black kids and white kids were going to have to go to school together. Many people in the South looked at it as an end to their way of life, and they were really resistant, militantly resistant to the Brown Versus Board of Ed decision. So I think that there's a direct connection between the murder of Emmett Till and the Brown Versus Board of Ed decision.
GWEN IFILL: And of course we'll be able to see your take on the Brown Vs. Board of Ed decision in tomorrow night's documentary on PBS stations, "Beyond Brown." Stanley Nelson, thank you very much for joining us.
STANLEY NELSON: Thank you so much.