“The Murder of Emmett Till,” “Freedom Summer,” Documentaries now Streaming

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[The Murder of Emmett Till\Freedom Summer]
Susan Bellows: “These films not only explore the history of our nation’s ongoing struggle with race, they have been agents of change as well, informing and inspiring a new generation to work for equality and justice.”
Photo: PBS

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE will stream The Murder of Emmett Till and Freedom Summer, two acclaimed documentaries from filmmaker Stanley Nelson, beginning Monday, August 3, 2020, on PBS.org and the PBS Video App.

Nelson’s 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till (Sundance Special Jury Prize) investigates the brutal killing of a 14-year-old African-American boy in Mississippi in 1955, an event that galvanized the mid-century civil rights movement. The film uncovered new eyewitnesses to the crime and helped prompt the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the case.

Freedom Summer (2014, Peabody Award) highlights an overlooked but essential element of the civil rights movement: the patient and long-term efforts by outside activists and local citizens in Mississippi to organize communities and register Black voters — even in the face of intimidation, physical violence and death.

The two films join Nelson’s Freedom Riders (2010, Primetime Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking), about the multiracial efforts to desegregate public transportation facilities in the Jim Crow South. The documentary began streaming in honor of Congressman John Lewis and Reverend C. T. Vivian, who are featured in the film and who both passed away on July 17, 2020.

“We are truly proud to be able to make these brilliant documentaries available for free streaming to the American public,” said AMERICAN EXPERIENCE acting executive producer Susan Bellows. “These films not only explore the history of our nation’s ongoing struggle with race, they have been agents of change as well, informing and inspiring a new generation to work for equality and justice.”

The Murder of Emmett Till takes viewers back 65 years to August 1955, when a 14-year-old African-American boy whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Emmett Till, a teen from Chicago, didn't understand that he had broken the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South until three days later, when on August 28 two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and then shot him in the head. Although his killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were both acquitted quickly by an all-white, all-male jury. Shortly afterward, the defendants sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till, to a journalist. The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world and helped mobilize the Civil Rights movement. Three months after his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.

Freedom Summer revisits the hot and deadly summer of 1964, when the nation could not turn away from Mississippi. Over ten memorable weeks known as Freedom Summer, more than 700 student volunteers joined with organizers and local African-Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in one of the nation’s most segregated states. Working together, they canvassed for voter registration, created Freedom Schools and established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the goal of challenging the segregationist state Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City. Freedom Summer was marked by sustained and deadly violence, including countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches and the bombing of 70 homes and community centers, and the brutal murder of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — whose bodies were discovered on August 4, 1964.

Freedom Riders tells the powerful, harrowing and ultimately inspirational story of six months that changed America forever. From May until November 1961, more than 400 Black and white Americans risked their lives — and many endured savage beatings and imprisonment — by traveling together on buses and trains as they journeyed through the Deep South. Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws to test and challenge a segregated interstate travel system, the Freedom Riders met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way, sorely testing their belief in nonviolent activism. The film features testimony from a fascinating cast of central characters: the Riders themselves, including the late John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, state and federal government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand. The two-hour documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.

About AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

For over 30 years, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been television’s most-watched history series. Hailed as “peerless” (The Wall Street Journal), “the most consistently enriching program on television” (Chicago Tribune) and “a beacon of intelligence and purpose” (Houston Chronicle), the series brings to life the incredible characters and epic stories that have shaped America’s past and present. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentaries have been honored with every major broadcast award, including 30 Emmy Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards and 18 George Foster Peabody Awards; the series received an Academy Award® nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2015 for Last Days in Vietnam. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE also creates original digital content that uses new forms of storytelling to connect our collective past with the present. Visit pbs.org/americanexperience and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to learn more.

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