*Gabby Smith ’23 is a guest interviewer from BPR’s US section.
When Keith Beauchamp was just 10 years old, he saw the image of Emmett Till’s battered face while looking through an issue of Jet magazine and afterwards his life would never be the same. Determined to share Till’s story with the world, he began researching the case as a young filmmaker, and in 2005 he released his groundbreaking documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. His story not only launched Emmett’s story back into the national spotlight, but his tireless work also spurred the reopening of the Emmett Till case by the Department of Justice over 50 years after the gross miscarriage of justice by Mississippi courts. As a civil rights activist, filmmaker, and criminal investigator, Keith Beauchamp has worked with, interviewed, and been mentored by some of the most influential people of the civil rights movement. As Emmett Till’s name resurfaces in this current climate of social change, Beauchamp continues to remind the world of the importance of retelling Emmett’s story and preserving his legacy. Beauchamp is also the executive producer and host of Investigation Discovery’s crime reality series The Injustice Files and a producer of the upcoming feature film Till. He won the special grand jury prize for a documentary feature at the Miami Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy for his work.
Gabby Smith: How did you get into filmmaking?
Keith Beauchamp: If it were not for the death of Emmett Till, there would not be a Keith Beauchamp filmmaker. The thing about my whole life and career was that it was all unintentional. I thought I would be a civil rights attorney. I’m not an entertainer; I’m not one of those filmmakers who produces stuff to entertain. Filmmaking is my activism tool. I use that tool in hopes to cause change. I won’t touch a project unless I’m able to make change through it, and it all has to do with the fact that I was involved with the reopening of the Emmett Till case. After I was able to see the power that an individual can have with just a simple tool of a camera, the whole world changed for me. I learned with Till that there is a way to get justice for these families.
I promised Emmett Till’s mother before she passed away that I would do all that I could to get his case reopened. She also instilled in me the importance of telling the stories of others who lost their lives in the civil rights struggle. She asked me to accomplish our goal of helping other families, and that is what I ended up dedicating my life to. This work that I do is something that is not natural for human beings to be doing every day. It takes a certain person to be a human rights and civil rights advocate. Homicide detectives do this work all the time, but they were trained—I wasn’t. I was brought into this world of death and I had to figure out how to navigate it myself. The only reason that the FBI agreed to work with me on reopening the case is that I have a gift— getting people to open up to me. I am not law enforcement; I am a young man and a filmmaker who is just trying to tell a story.
GS: When families who lost loved ones were victims to racist violence during the civil rights movement come to you to tell their story, what kind of justice are they looking for? What does justice mean to you in terms of unsolved civil rights cases?
KB: I think I’m different than many in terms of the way I’ve been able to process that question of what justice really is. When I started off, I used to be bloodthirsty. It was all about putting people in jail and frying them. There’s a quote that I like—anyone who knows me knows I love quotes—that I feel captures it well: “There’s no justice in America, but it is the pursuit of justice that sustains you.” Even if you had courtroom justice, you would never be able to bring the victim back. The family will never have closure. There is no justice in America. That’s what drives me every day. Oftentimes when a family contacts me it is because they have exhausted every other avenue. The reality is that, in many of these unsolved civil rights murder cases, you will never really see courtroom justice. The families know that already. Many of them don’t even know what happened to their loved ones, and that’s where I come in.
Being able to take a case and figure out how this loved one was murdered, and then being able to go back to the family to let them know what happened—that is giving them more justice than courtroom justice will ever be able to provide. All these families want is a platform to tell their loved ones’ stories, as well as find out what happened to them. I’m able to provide those services through my filmmaking abilities. I had a number of television series I was able to produce after Till—all of them were based on solving civil rights murders. I provide a platform for family members to speak about their loved ones, and that’s all many of them ever wanted. That’s very important towards the healing process. People want justice, and not just courtroom justice, but truth. Till helped me do that: he gave me the ability to help other families and I am forever grateful for that.
GS: Do you remember the first time you heard about the story of Emmett Till? Who told you about it? What was going through your mind when you first saw the image of his body?
KB: I’m from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the deep south, so my prism is a lot different than many others. I’ve been around injustice all my life. My journey with Till started when I was 10 years old. I was in my parents’ study, and I was going through old vintage magazines. I came across a Jet magazine and started thumbing through the pages, until I came across this angelic face of Emmett Till. I was looking at this kid because he was sort of a mirror image of myself at that time. Then I saw the juxtaposing photograph of him after he was murdered, and I was just truly floored and shocked. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I remember reading some of the story, but by that time my parents walked by and saw me with my mouth open. They looked at each other and said to each other: “We gotta tell him the story.” It was at that moment that they told me what they knew about the story of Emmett Till. Throughout my life, Emmett’s name kept resurfacing.
GS: What role did Emmett play in your life after that point?
KB: When I got to high school I began interracially dating. I went to a predominantly white school. The first thing my parents would tell me before I left the house at night was, “Don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.” Emmett’s story became a tool to teach me about the racism that still continues in this country today. But it wasn’t until two weeks before my high school graduation that I really had my wake-up call. I was at a pre-graduation party for the local high schools in the area. At the party, I saw three white girls who were classmates of mine. One of the girls told me to come over to dance with them. I went over there with two of my friends and we started dancing. We were having a good time, no issues whatsoever, until all of a sudden I was pushed hard from behind. I turned around and discovered it was a bouncer at the club and I pushed him back. He said, “n*****, mess with your own kind” and continued pushing me. Of course, I was enraged and pushed him back and we started fighting on the floor. The bouncer made a gesture to someone on the side and he started running over and throwing punches at me. I threw punches back, and my best friend joined in.
The next thing I know two uniformed officers come in, grab me, and begin to pull me out of the establishment. The second guy throwing punches at me ran outside and began attacking me again, hitting me with an iron keychain. I fell to the ground while the uniformed officers began handcuffing me and took me to a secluded office in the back of the nightclub. They handcuffed me to a chair and walked out. One of my attackers, who turned out to be an undercover cop, came in and began beating me. I was defenseless. He kicked over my chair and I was on the ground, handcuffed, while he kicked me in the chest and face. My face and jaw were swelling. The officers were trying to charge me with assault and battery on a police officer. I was sitting there trying to figure this out, extremely angry because I know why I was attacked. I explained what the bouncer said to me and how he started attacking me, but they were trying to convince me it wasn’t about race. That was my wakeup call— I realized then I had to do something with my life. When I was kicked over in that chair, being beaten, I wasn’t thinking about the pain. All I thought of was Emmett Till and what my mom had said. It was at that point, on that night, that I said to myself: “I gotta put myself in a position of power to never let anything like this happen to a person of color ever again.” I thought in order to change the system, I would have to be part of the system.
GS: You were given the honor of interviewing and befriending the late Mamie Mobley, the hero of Emmett Till’s story and a phenomenal woman who certainly does not get enough credit in the mainstream retelling of Till’s story. Can you tell me a little bit about what she was like and your relationship to her?
KB: You know, it’s interesting that you ask that because I am still trying to process this great woman who came into my life and gave me a gift to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. In ‘95, I met Emmett Till’s mother, Mother Mobley. We started talking by phone. We ended up talking about 2 hours on the phone that day, and after that I started calling her every day just to check to see how she was doing. I finally met her face to face in ‘96, and when our eyes met it was a great feeling. I worked with her for 9 years before she unfortunately passed away. That was the biggest moment of my life, because I had always looked at her as the mother of the Civil Rights movement. Meeting her was like meeting God to me. I don’t think we met by chance, I think for some reason we were supposed to cross paths.
I lost my grandmother during the time of meeting Mother Mobley and she kind of filled that void for me. Because of that we became extremely close. One time she heard me say on a radio show that she filled that void for me, and she told me that I filled the void for her left by Emmett and that just touched me. When she spoke, her words moved your soul. I joke sometimes that if she had told me to go kill someone, I probably would have done it. That’s how powerful she is. It was with her encouragement that I decided to make the documentary. She said, “Keith, with all this new information and evidence you’re coming across, you could possibly get this case reopened now.” I told her I’m going to do everything we need to do to get this documentary done and get the case reopened, and then she passed away a year before it was reopened. I upheld my promise, which I’m very proud of.
She fought until her last breath to get her son’s case reopened. It was truly remarkable to bear witness to someone like that. I’m not anyone special. I just did what anyone would’ve done if they met Mrs. Mobley the way that I met her. She would say these words, I and live by these words every day of my life: “Keith, you must continuously tell Emmett’s story until man’s consciousness has risen. Only then will there be justice for Emmett Till.” Those were prophetic words. We are still in the same fight, and the way you can change people’s minds about the civil rights movement or any upcoming movement we have is by way of Emmett’s story. That’s why you hear his name everywhere.
GS: Why do you think that the Mississippi grand jury failed to indict Carolyn Bryant in 2007, even when there was overwhelming evidence against her?
KB: There’s a saying in the legal world that has been talked about especially in recent weeks with Breonna Taylor’s case, that a prosecutor who takes his case to a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich if they wanted to. Prosecutors win their cases almost all the time. But, in this case it didn’t happen. We had a Black DA, Joyce Childs, who oversaw the case. I knew I had the evidence. We were hoping to get Carolyn Bryant on culpable negligence charges: all we needed to prove was that she was aware of the danger she was putting Emmett Till in and that she did nothing to stop it. We couldn’t get her on perjury because that held a 2 year statute of limitations; we couldn’t get her on civil rights violations because that held a 5 year statute at the time.
The next argument was murder: there is no statute of limations on murder on the state level. Of course, the problem with that is, however, that the most corruption that you encounter is on the state and local level. Although I expected that justice would prevail because that is what the DA promised we would be able to do, it didn’t. It kind of destroyed me. All the critics came and attacked me. They said I was too ambitious and shamed me for taking all the manpower away from all the other cases. They were very harsh, and I went into a dark place because I was so angry. Some critics came out and said there could be absolutely no racial reasons why the grand jury didn’t indict Carolyn Bryant because we had a Black DA. That angered me so much because they had no idea what was going on, and what evidence I was able to come across. But if you know the history of the South, you know about white purity and white supremacy. Things have changed, but they cosmetically change. It’s the same old fight, but it took me a number of years to realize that.
GS: Recently, Emmett Till’s story has yet again been brought back to the national spotlight as the country faces a new racial reckoning in the wake of murders at the hands of police. Do you see the legacy of Emmett Till reflected in current calls for justice?
KB: I feel like a lot of people have gotten their wake-up call like I had mine. With George Floyd’s case, for instance, when I first saw that video it brought me back to when I was 10 years old. The whole symbolic aspect of a white man’s knee on his neck— that’s a metaphor that we often use when we talk about living in American as Black men. We would always talk about how the white man has his knee on our backs. To visually see something like that touched me, but even more so when I found that out that he was screaming for his mother. When I saw that, the only thing I could think about was Emmett, because Emmett did the same thing. I know that for a lot of people, that was their Emmett Till moment. I believe that there are really some people out there doing the work right now, or trying to do it. But I don’t want people to have this illusion that things change overnight, because they don’t. I’ve heard many people compare this moment to the time after Emmett Till, and I want this to be an Emmett Till moment. But that still remains to be seen. I don’t know how long it will take for change to come, but it took years for change to come from Emmett Till’s case.
Emmett Till’s murder influenced the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which led to the formation of the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department. When we talk about Emmett’s rightful place in society today we have failed in putting Emmett’s story in its proper context in history. We have to understand why his death even happened. To do that, we have to go back to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision—the biggest decision won by the NAACP to date—and the subsequent formation of the Citizen’s Council of Mississippi. They pledged to reign terror on Black Mississippians during the election year. Two voting rights advocates—Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith—were shot by members of the Citizens Council in the summer of 1954. Emmett Till’s murder wasn’t a fluke, it wasn’t an accident. The movement was carefully planned and that is what we don’t realize today.
After the death of Mother Mobley and Simeon Wright, I surrounded myself with members of truth and reconciliation committees and civil rights activists throughout the South, mostly in Mississippi. Many of them became my mentors. I was young— they kept me focused. They helped me understand the importance of not just moving towards the future hastily, but understanding the past so that we won’t repeat it. When we come to this point, with the Black Lives Matter movement—I love the movement, it’s needed, I support it—in order for us to understand how to fight the enemy, racism, we must understand how we fought it the first time. There’s no other movement in our history that’s been as successful as the civil rights movement. We have to look at that movement closely and understand it. There are people who lived through the movement who can help us. The fight that we are fighting is nothing new: it’s the same generational social ills. Every generation is obligated to fight the good fight. That’s the only way change is going to happen.
GS: What’s next for you?
KB: You caught me at a very interesting time in my life… I’m on a journey of self-reflection. I was only 22 years old when I started research on Till and I have been completely doing this work ever since. I was afraid to stop, to be honest with you. I have a whole different perspective on life that comes from wisdom and being a student of history. I’m getting ready to close this chapter of my journey. I have to live my life and let Emmett go. He has been my kindred spirit for so long. I think I’ve done as much as I could for him. I’m working on the feature film [about Emmett’s life], which we’ll start shooting next year. My life has come full circle. All I’ve ever wanted to do was get the case reopened and tell his story on the big screen. I was able to accomplish that at any early age with the documentary, but I’ve always had a little bit of this emptiness because I set out in the beginning to do a feature film. Now that the feature is on the horizon, that’s going to be the ending of my chapter.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.