The Murder of Emmett Till

GWEN IFILL: In 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago boy named Emmett Till was kidnapped, brutally tortured, and murdered for whistling at a white woman while on a visit to Mississippi. That murder is widely seen as a critical spark for the modern Civil Rights movement, and it's the subject, this Martin Luther King Day, of a new PBS documentary by filmmaker and Macarthur genius grant awardee, Stanley Nelson. He's with me now. Stanley, welcome.


GWEN IFILL: What made you decide to retell the story of Emmett Till?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, the Emmett Till story is something that I've lived with all my life. I mean, it scared me to death as a kid, and it's something that I've always known about. But the immediate push was I heard Mamie Till Mobley on the radio, I guess about three or four years ago…

GWEN IFILL: His mother.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, his mother. And she was just so moving. It was just an incredible experience to hear her. And I started trying to add up in my head, well, you know, this was 44 some years ago, and he was 14, and if she was 16 when he was born, I mean, that would be a super young mother. And it came to my head that she would have to be, you know, up in her 70s.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me a little bit… for people who don't remember the whole story, of the story of Emmett Till and his murder.

STANLEY NELSON: Sure. Emmett till was a 14-year-old kid from Chicago who went to Mississippi to visit his uncle in 1955, and was accused of whistling at a white woman. Three days later, her husband and another man came into the house where Emmett Till was staying. They didn't try to hide their faces, they didn't wear masks or hoods or anything. They just came in and took him in the middle of the night. Three days after that, his body was found in the Tallahatchie River. His body was so brutally mutilated that he could only be identified by a ring on his finger. When his body was shipped back to Chicago, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, said that she wanted the world to see what had happened to her son, and refused to bury him in a closed casket, and had an open casket funeral for Emmett Till.

GWEN IFILL: And we should say that Mamie Till Mobley, who championed the fact that for people who were apparently responsible, at least in part, for her son's death were never found– in fact, were acquitted of the crime. She kept the story alive all these years, but she passed away recently.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah, Mamie Till Mobley just passed away on Jan. 6. So she just passed away. Unfortunately she never got a chance to see the film.

GWEN IFILL: But we get a chance to hear from her in the film, which is… and in the clip we're going to show now, she's describing what it was like to send her only son off to Mississippi to spend the summer with his uncle.

SPOKESMAN: On Aug. 19, Mamie gave Emmett the ring that had belonged to his father. The next morning Emmett and his mother grabbed his bags and rushed off to the 63rd Street Station.

MAMIE TILL MOBLEY: He was running up the steps to try to make it to the train, and I said, Emmett, or Beau – I called him Beau – I said, "where are you going, you haven't kissed me good night. And how do I know I'll ever see you again?" And he looked at me and he said, "oh, mama." He kind of scolded me for saying something like that. But he turned around, he came back, and he kissed me good-bye. And he said, "here, take this." He pulled his watch off and gave it to me. He said, "I won't need this where I'm going." I said, "what about your ring?" He said, "oh, I'm going to show it off to the fellows." With that, he was up the steps and on his way to get on the train.

GWEN IFILL: So Stanley, when I watch these pieces that you put together into this hour-long documentary, I wonder, how do you go about pulling all the pieces together? How do you know how to illustrate her words, and how do you get the footage to do it?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, the footage, I mean, we were so lucky. When we went into doing the film, we had no idea that there was so much footage of the trial that took place after Emmett Till was murdered. And, you know, we just scoured every possible source. I mean, what I tell the people that I'm working with — and we had a great coordinating producer and a great assistant producer– what I tell them is, you know, look, I want to see every single piece of footage that was ever shot, every picture that was ever made that concerns Emmett Till. And if I don't see every picture… if I see a picture ten years from now that I haven't seen before, then I'm going to come, I'm going to knock on your door, and you're going to be very, very sorry. So, you know, they tried to find every single thing they possibly can, because I think that's our job in doing this kind of long- form documentary, is to try to accumulate every single thing we possibly can, because that's what makes the story rich for us.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things you alluded to earlier is Mamie till Mobley's decision to have a casket of her son's mutilated body left open for thousands of people to come pass by, who had never met her or had never met him to see, and how that was the spark that caused such national, international grief and attention. Was there something about the savagery of this particular murder which caught people's imagination in this way?

STANLEY NELSON: Sure. I think the… Emmett Till's body, the condition of his body, really just, you know, horrified people. And I think that because Mamie Till was in Chicago, she could get the word out. I mean, people had been lynched for 100 years, but in the Emmett Till case, people could actually see it with their own eyes. They could see the brutality that they had, you know, just heard about. So it was the fact that she was in Chicago, and could get the word out, and then people could see. And then, at his funeral, 50,000 people actually went by and saw his body, and then "Jet" Magazine published pictures, and those pictures went around the world.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that's hard for people who are children of this century or this decade, of this time, to remember was what it was like at the time, and the kind of language that people used, and the way that this sort of thing could escalate. One other thing that struck me in particular when I was watching your documentary was listening to the sheriff, and listening to the way he spoke to the television cameras about the case. Let's listen to that.

NARRATOR: Tallahatchie county sheriff and plantation owner Clarence Strider was responsible for locating witnesses and gathering evidence against Bryant and Mylam.

SPOKESMAN: Sheriff Strider was a big, fat, plain-talking, obscene- talking sheriff you'd expect to find in the South. His actions at the trial were more, I think, not so much to seek justice of what was going on, but to be sure that his courtroom was totally segregated.

ERNEST WITHERS: The man had laid it out that we got 22 seats over here for you white boys, and we got four seats over here for you colored boys. We don't mix them down here. We ain't going to mix them, and we don't intend to. You ain't going to be with the white folks, and the white folks ain't going to be with you, and y'all might be…. ain't going to be no love nest between black and white folk.

NARRATOR: Strider consigned black reporters and Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs to a card table on the sidelines. Strider greeted them as he passed with a cheery, "hello, niggers."

SHERIFF CLARENCE STRIDER: We never had any trouble until some of our southern niggers go up north, and the NAACP talks to them, and they come back home. If they would keep their nose and mouths out of our business, we would be able to do more, and we'll enforce the laws of Tallahatchie County in Mississippi.

GWEN IFILL: Bryant and Mylam, who were the two at the top of that clip, were of course the two men who were later acquitted, who were tried and acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury of their peers– people from their county, actually– of the crime. All the years later, all the years of lecturing and traveling that Mamie Till Mobley did to try to bring attention to her son's murder, did she ever feel vindicated, do you think?

STANLEY NELSON: Well, Mamie Till Mobley was an incredibly strong woman. And I think that one of the things that was so impressive about her was that she was not angry at all. She wasn't bitter. You know, she wanted the world to change. She wanted to make sure that this didn't happen again. And she pushed for that. But she… there wasn't a lot of bitterness. I think you see in the film, you know, it's very clear who she was. So, you know, she was a real kind of… you know, just bigger than life. I mean, she was incredible.

GWEN IFILL: Whatever happened to the book she was working on? She was working on a book when she died.

STANLEY NELSON: She was working on a book. I actually talked to her co- author last night, and he said that they have come far enough before she passed to finish the book, so we're hoping that the book will be finished.

GWEN IFILL: When you say that Mamie Till Mobley wasn't bitter, but just wanted the world to change so this wouldn't happen again, do you think that happened? Has the world changed?

STANLEY NELSON: I don't think it's changed enough. I mean, I think that clearly the world has changed from the Mississippi and the world that we knew of back there in 1955. But I think that one of, hopefully, the lessons of the film is that, you know, the Civil Rights movement and change is made up of these kind of small heroes– you know, these people like Mamie Till Mobley, or Willie Reed and Mose Wright, who both testified at the trial, you know, black people who testified at the trial, and then had to flee Mississippi, never to live there again. I mean, that's who really made up the Civil Rights movement, that's what it's about. And if we want change– and I think a lot of us say we want change– then we have to push for it. That's what I think the Civil Rights movement was about.

GWEN IFILL: And in matter of fact, it was 100 days after the discovery of Emmett Till's body that Rosa Parks didn't get up on the bus. On Martin Luther King Day, thank you for joining us.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: Stanley Nelson.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.