MOUND BAYOU, Miss. – The small, all-Black town of Mound Bayou became a safe haven for Emmett Till’s mother when she traveled to Mississippi to testify in the murder trial of two white men who lynched their son in 1955.
Hundreds of people — a good portion of Mound Bayou’s 1,500 residents — turned out to see the film “Till” on Thursday night. The feature film will be released in the US this weekend, having been in limited release since October 14.
“This place, this town, is very sacred to the story of Emmett Till,” one of the filmmakers, Keith Beauchamp, told the predominantly black audience in the gymnasium of Mound Bayou’s John F. Kennedy High School.
The performance came days after a bronze statue of Till was unveiled in Greenwood, Mississippi, about 50 miles away.
Beauchamp is one of the producers and writers on “Till,” which focuses primarily on Mamie Till-Mobley’s response to the loss of her only child and her growth into a civil rights activist. Their 14-year-old son had traveled from Chicago to New York Mississippi to visit relatives in August 1955, and white men abducted, tortured, and killed him after he was accused of flirting with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who worked in a country store.
Till-Mobley, whose name was Mamie Bradley at the time of her son’s death, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago so the world could see her son’s battered body. Jet Magazine published photos.
An all-white, all-male jury in Tallahatchie County acquitted the shopkeeper’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, JW Milam, just weeks after Till’s body was pulled from a river. The two men later admitted this in an interview with the magazine “Look”.
Mound Bayou was founded in 1887 by formerly enslaved people in the cotton-growing Mississippi Delta as a distinct community where black people could thrive amid the hostility of the Jim Crow era.
NAACP leaders, including Mississippi’s Medgar Evers, coordinated with Dr. TRM Howard, a doctor and entrepreneur in Mound Bayou, to provide safety and protection for Till’s mother in town. Mound Bayou also provided sanctuary to black journalists covering the trial in Sumner, 35 miles away.
The lynching of Till has sparked turmoil in the civil rights movement and has echoed for generations of black parents telling their children to be careful in a country that has not shaken up racism.
One of Till’s relatives who attended Thursday’s screening was 65-year-old Joe Stidhum, who was born two years after Till’s death. He said his grandfather and Till’s mother were brother and sister.
Stidhum said his mother was always strict with him as his 10 siblings growing up in Mound Bayou, but “she didn’t tell us her side until we got older.” He said he was around 12 or 13 years old been when he found out about Till’s violent death.
“When we were teenagers, my mother explained to us why she was so protective of us,” Stidhum said after the film.
The closest movie theater to Mound Bayou is more than 30 miles south in Greenville, Mississippi.
No one was ever convicted for Till’s lynching. The US Department of Justice has opened several investigations since 2004 after receiving requests to indict survivors.
The Justice Department reopened an investigation in 2018 after a 2017 book quoted Carolyn Bryant – now remarried and going by the name Carolyn Bryant Donham – as saying that she lied when she claimed Till grabbed her, whistled and whistled made sexual advances. Relatives have publicly denied that Donham, who is in her 80s, has retracted her allegations. The department closed that investigation in late 2021 without filing charges.
Deborah Watts, another of Till’s cousins and co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, was among those who signed an unfulfilled 1955 warrant for “Mrs. Roy Bryant” earlier this year in a courthouse basement. In August, a Mississippi grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Donham. Watts said Thursday that she still wants officers to serve on Donham’s warrant.
“Justice delayed since 1955 is justice denied,” Watts told The Associated Press. “Without hatred, malice or violence, we want what any victim’s family would want, which is for those responsible to be held accountable. Nobody should be above the law.”
In March, President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act into law. After the film screening, Beauchamp told the audience that he would do anything to honor Till’s memory, but he wanted more.
“If we strive for racial reconciliation in this country, it will not be done with a statue or a law,” Beauchamp said. “We need truth and justice.”
Some in the crowd, seated in blue plastic chairs and bleachers, nodded and said, “All right. In order.”
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