Interview with Keith Beauchamp
Throughout my life, Emmett's Story would be used as an educational tool to teach me about the racism that still exists in this country. Two weeks before my High School graduation, I was assaulted by a undercover police officer for dancing with a white girl at a pre-graduation party. This incident spurred me into position to make sure these things would not happen to a person of color again.
While he was in high school, Keith Beauchamp was assaulted by a police officer for dancing with a white woman. He attended Southern University of Baton Rouge where he studied criminal justice with plans to become a civil rights attorney. But instead, he decided to leave the South to pursue another dream, that of becoming a film director. He relocated to New York City where he founded Till Freedom Comes Productions, a company devoted to socially-significant projects. And he has spent the past nine years of his life re-investigating the 1955 case of Emmett Till, the 14 year-old African-American boy lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Beauchampâ€˜s dedication and tireless efforts ended with the production of The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, a damning documentary which embarrassed the U.S. Department of Justice into belatedly re-opening the murder case. Here, the award-winning director discusses his labor of love.
BSN: What interested you in the Emmett Till case?
KB: I first was introduced to the Emmett Till Case at the age of 10. While in my parent's study rumbling magazines, I came across a Jet Magazine that covered the story. I can remember opening the magazine and finding the photo of his corpse. At that time, my parents came in and explained the story to me. Throughout my life, Emmett's Story would be used as an educational tool to teach me about the racism that still exists in this country. Two weeks before my High School graduation, I was assaulted by a undercover police officer for dancing with a white girl at a pre-graduation party. This incident spurred me into position to make sure these things would not happen to a person of color again.
BSN: Given all the lynching, why did Till's attract so much national interest? Was it the Look Magazine article?
KB: There were many lynchings that took place before and during the Civil Rights Movement, but were several factors helped the Till case to get not only national attention but international attention. First, Emmett Till, was a 14-year old kid. Second, Emmett's mother, the late Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley, made the courageous decision to have an open casket at the funeral, because she wanted the world to see what happened to her son. The photograph of his corpse was published in Jet Magazine and other publications of the Black Press, so that the Black community could see what happened to this young boy. Blacks felt that innocent kids were now being targeted, to be used as a tactic of intimidation to keep them from the polls. Third, the confession in 'Look' Magazine brought national and international attention because many felt that these two men should have been charged for the crime five months earlier. However, the brothers decided to tell their story because they knew that Double Jeopardy would protect them from being tried again.
BSN: How did your making this movie get the Federal Government to reopen the 49 year-old case?
KB: The process towards justice in this case practically began when I first started my research in 1996. I met Mrs. Mobley, Emmett's mother, and she took me under her wing, encouraging me to join her in the fight for justice for her son. The documentary was a project that we both decided to do. While, I was in Mississippi researching the case, I came across witnesses who never spoke before and at that time, I then realized that the interviews that I was conducting were not just interviews but depositions, because these people had never spoken publicly about the case before. In 2000, I sent some of my research to now Judge Bobby Delaughter, the formal D.A. who was instrumental in reopening the Medgar Evers Case. After he reviewed the information, he sent it back to me and said that he believed that I may have enough evidence to possibly get the Till Case reopened. At that time, he forwarded this information to then State Attorney General Mike Moore. Mike Moore was known to not look at old Civil Rights cases, because it was rumored at the time, that he was trying to run for governor.
Knowing this, Mrs. Mobley then encouraged me to use the same tactics that she used back in 1955 to bring recognition to this case. She told me to speak publicly about my plight, to start a ' grass root' movement towards justice in this case and to also get the media on my side. That year, I begin to speak out and lobbied for the reopening of this case. I started speaking at universities and high schools, and traveling with a 30 minute work-in-progress, which I was using as a fundraiser tool, to help me continue my research and finish the film. I felt that, if I could tell this story visually by the eyewitnesses, I would be able to garner the same effect that Spike Lee did with "Four Little Girls," that led to the reopening of that case. And on May 10, 2004, the US Justice Department reopened the investigation into the murder of Emmett Till citing my film, as the cause and starting point for their investigation. I am currently still working with the FBI.
BSN: In going back to Mississippi to interview eyewitnesses, did you get any death threats?
KB: While in Mississippi, I was only warned about the dangers, dealing with this case. I was in Mississippi for four years without anyone knowing that I was shooting the film. This helped a lot because if anyone would have caught on to what I was doing, this case would not have been opened today.
BSN: Were any of the people you wanted to interview intimidated?
KB: Yes and No. Some of the witnesses were anxious to tell their stories because they held it in for so long. Others were afraid to come forward because they were afraid that I was going to open up a can of worms and caused them to be killed. It was my witnesses who informed me that those who were involved with the murder were still alive. A lot of my time was spent trying to convince eyewitnesses to come forward and talk to me. I had to gain their trust. It took me three years to get Mr. Simeon Wright, Emmett's cousin, who was sharing a bed with him the night of the abduction, to talk.
BSN: Is Mississippi now fully integrated or is it substantially unchanged?
KB: Mississippi has the most highly elected Black officials in the Union. Although much has changed with Blacks getting into office, there are still problems that they are continuing to be plagued with. It's still the poorest state in the union, Racial unrest still exists throughout the state. And Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which we believe helped this nation by ending segregation in public schools, did not really help public schools in Mississippi. In the Delta where Till's murder took place, only Blacks attend public schools and whites attend private schools, which are segregated. It seems as if time stood still in this area of Mississippi, and there' are many things that you still can't do as a Black person.
BSN: What do you think would happen to a Black man who would whistle to a white woman today?
KB: I do not believe that anything would actually happen, but I know that Blacks in the Delta would think twice before doing it. The Till incident and the Southern white man's codes have been a part of the Black community in Mississippi for generations, even I would not dare to emit a whistle to my female colleague.
BSN: Do you think the long reign of terror and intimidation by the Klan across the South has left an indelible mark on the culture?
KB: I believe that long reign of terror was not only caused by the Klan but many other whites who were not members but supported the same ideas. I think that the act of oppression and terrorism that began when the first Black slave set foot on American soil left an indelible mark on the culture. After all, I believe that's why there was a Civil War.
BSN: Are Black people still expected to be deferential to whites in Mississippi?
KB: Yes, in some areas of not only Mississippi, but of the South in general, white social codes still apply.
BSN: Are you still interested in pursuing the study of law?
KB: I often think about the possibility when things calm down but, I would like to continue my career as a filmmaker. With the Till Project, I have the best of both worlds. That gives me a bit of edge. If, I see an issue that needs to be addressed, I can always use this new forum of activism-filmmaking.
BSN: With over a million Black people behind bars and the number of Black lawyers declining, what can be done about the escalating rate of Black incarceration?
KB: I believe that only through education, will Blacks Americans be able to change this condition. But, we all have to understand that we, as Black people in this country, still don't have equal rights under the law. This issue is not just a Black problem but a human problem, for we all live under the banner of "the land of the free and home of the brave." This problem has many roots and we must all understand that the results of oppression stemming from slavery and prejudices towards Blacks in this county have caused trans-generational pain that persists in today's Black community. Only by starting to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go when it comes to racism can we begin the process of reconciliation.
BSN: What effect do you want your movie to have an audience?
KB: I hope this film, will educate us all about the true catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement, and inspire this generation to continue to carry the torch for a better way of life. This film should serve as a reminder on how for we have come, and how far we have yet to go in these great United States.
BSN: What type of movie will you make next, another documentary?
KB: Currently, we are working to produce a feature film about my life and the Till case, that we hope would inspire others. After that, I think I will work on two more documentaries and then move to narratives features, where I hope to become one of the most prolific filmmakers of this generation.