The brutal death of Emmett Till — an African-American teenager — in Mississippi in August of 1955, and the subsequent acquittal of his white murderers by an all-white jury, was a pivotal moment in the surge for civil rights in America.
Till, 14, was kidnapped, beaten and shot — after allegedly flirting with a white grocery store cashier — on Aug. 28, 1955. Civil rights activists saw Till’s tragic death and open-casket funeral as a call to action.
Now, 60 years after the tragedy, Florida State University is creating an Emmett Till Archive. The university plans to make the announcement soon.
The unspeakably grisly case, documentarian Keith A. Beauchamp tells NPR, “serves as a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go in terms of race relations in our country.”
Because Of Emmett Till
The death of Emmett Till, Beauchamp explains, inspired civil rights pioneers, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and it was a motivating factor in “the 1957 Civil Rights Act and it’s one of the main reasons why we have a Civil Rights Division of the United States Justice Department.”
Beauchamp’s 2005 film The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till led to the U.S. Department of Justice reopening the Till case — half a century after the murder. No one else was charged, however. The filmmaker is now working on a new movie about the life of Emmett Till with producers Whoopi Goldberg and Frederick Zollo.
After more than two decades of delving into the events surrounding the crime, the Brooklyn documentarian says he will be donating research materials — including “about 80 to 90 hours of raw footage of interviews and archival footage” gathered during the making of his award-winning documentary — to the Emmett Till Archive.
“I hope that scholars, students and laymen who are interested in the archives walk away with a better understanding of the Till case and its importance to American history,” Beauchamp tells NPR. “Just like it was a catalyst for change in 1955, I truly believe that if everyone understands Till’s story, it can be a catalyst for change today.”
The Florida State University Perspective
From the university’s viewpoint, the Emmett Till Archive — replete with court documents, interview transcripts and oral histories, among other items — will provide a mother lode of material for scholars and historians. To understand the importance of the archive, we posed a handful of questions to one of its shepherds, FSU professor Davis Houck:
1) Can you put into words the historical significance of the Emmett Till Archive at Florida State? “The archive will finally institutionalize the importance of Emmett Till to the larger black freedom movement. I mean, we know this anecdotally, for those of us who study the case, but perhaps the larger scholarly community does not. So to finally formalize that significance of the Till case with this collection will be big. And to finally have a lot of important documents in one place is just hugely important for people who can’t travel the country searching here and there for small bits of information. There’s never been anything approximating an Emmett Till archive, so we hope the collection will also catalyze research on the case.”
2) What will be included in the archive? “We’ll have lots of different types of documents. We’ll have a very comprehensive collection of newspaper documents from all over the country and world — black and white. The press was so important to the case, so to have a fairly exhaustive collection of papers will facilitate our understanding of the media’s importance to the story. As someone who’s written a good bit about how the Mississippi press covered the case, I’m pleased to make these really important state texts available, too. We’ll also have a lot of documents detailing more contemporary work on the Till case, including a number of archival documents involving how Emmett Till is presently being memorialized in and around the Delta.”
3) What are some of the signature objects in the collection? “Keith Beauchamp’s oral histories and interviews with many people on the ground in Mississippi will be really invaluable since they’re one-of-a-kind texts, in ways that newspapers are not. Keith spent years talking to black Mississippians, trying to learn what he could about the case. That work was pivotal in persuading the FBI to reopen its investigation … some of his interviews proved important in tracking leads. Devery Anderson [author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement] will also make available his many interviews with friends, family and officials related to the case — many of whom had never been contacted before. So there will be many unique texts that nobody else will have.”
4) Where will the archive reside and will it be available to the public? “The archive will be housed in Special Collections at Florida State University — Strozier Library. We plan to go live with many of the documents in Spring 2016. We also hope to digitize key documents so that they’ll be accessible online.”
5) What do you feel is missing from the archive — if anything? “We know presently that there are at least seven Hollywood big-budget projects in various phases of production — a remarkable thing, to be sure. We’d love eventually to have the scripts, outtakes and other film resources from these popular culture texts. Our understanding of Emmett Till, as such, won’t be limited to the past, but how we re-imagine that past in the present.”