The night was jet black as the visitors from New York pulled up in a rented car. Ruthie Mae Crawford hustled her guests inside, terrified someone might see.
Keith Beauchamp and his two-man crew set up the video camera in the living room. A 29-year-old novice director with a day job as a clothing store security guard, Beauchamp was in the Mississippi Delta in pursuit of an obsession: a film about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was snatched, slain and dumped in the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman.
After four years Beauchamp had piles of documents, hours of footage and, now, an interview with one of the last living witnesses to one of the ugliest crimes of the segregated South.
Crawford was a girl when she saw Till taken in the middle of the night. An all-white jury acquitted two white men of the murder. Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam later admitted their involvement and eventually died of cancer.
Fearful, 50 years later
They entered the history books as the men responsible for the crime. The case was closed.
All that was about to change.
Crawford would only sit with her face obscured by shadow.
She began to talk nervously about Till, who was spending his summer vacation in 1955 with great-uncle Mose Wright when he whistled at Bryant’s young wife, Carolyn, outside the couple’s country store.
Four days later, Milam and Bryant came seeking vengeance. Crawford was asleep in a shed next door.
“I heard a lot of cars, just driving real fast,” she remembered.
Beauchamp was puzzled. The history books described Milam and Bryant in a single pickup truck.
“It seemed like to me there ought to have been 200 or 300 cars come down through the gravel road to Mose Wright’s home,” Crawford continued.
Facts not fully known
Beauchamp wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“There’s more than one car that you saw?” he asked.
“Ooh my God yes,” came the reply. “More than one car.”
As a child Beauchamp was riveted by the photograph of Till in an open coffin, mutilated beyond recognition. As a teenager, he’d hear his parents issue a warning when he went out with white girls: “Don’t let what happened to Emmett Till happen to you.”
He had been thinking of his first film as an homage to Till, a retelling of a turning point in black history by a member of the hip-hop generation. Now, a new possibility began to dawn.
What if the true story never had been fully told?
What if all the guilty had never been charged?
“I said, ’Damn,”’ Beauchamp recalled in an interview. “What if these people are still alive?”
Case becomes obsession
Beauchamp returned to the Delta again and again, digging deep into the past. He borrowed money from his parents in Baton Rouge, La.; credit-card advances, his law-school fund and then a loan against their home.
“I don’t care when you called him for the last 10 years,” said his mother, Ceola Beauchamp. “I don’t care whether it was day or night, it was ’Emmett Till, Emmett Till,’ Emmett Till.”’
Intimate with the charms and the ugliness of the South — he says was beaten by police for dancing with a white girl at a nightclub — Beauchamp began to win over the blacks who witnessed Till’s final hours.
He began to pursue Mose Wright’s son, Simeon, who was sleeping nearby on the night Till was taken.
Call after call after call, Wright turned down the young man from New York.
“He chased me for three years,” recalled Wright, a 62-year-old retired pipefitter who lives outside Chicago. “He convinced me that what he was after was the truth.”
A woman's voice
Persuaded, Wright began helping Beauchamp sift fact from innuendo. Everything started falling into place.
Mose Wright had testified about a voice — softer than a man’s, he said — identifying Till from the back of Milam’s pickup before the killing early on the morning of Aug. 28, 1955.
Was the voice Carolyn Bryant’s? Beauchamp learned that Mose Wright had told his family that it was.
Old FBI files turned up an arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant that apparently was never served.
Picking up speed, Beauchamp pored through archives, pulling old articles from the African-American press. To his surprise, story after story named additional suspects in the case. Not all of them, it turned out, were white.
Among the blacks who helped Milam and Bryant commit the crime, witnesses told the black reporters, was a Milam employee named Henry Lee Loggins.
Beauchamp tracked Loggins to Dayton, Ohio, and talked him into a remarkable interview.
Loggins described for Beauchamp, virtually moment for moment, how Emmett Till was taken from Mose Wright’s home. Loggins caught himself throughout the interview, saying he was merely repeating what he had heard.
Witnesses kept coming forward. A pattern began to emerge.
In the files of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, Beauchamp discovered articles saying a white Ku Klux Klan member had boasted about helping the killers. A witness told Beauchamp that another, different white man helped Bryant beat Till before the murder.
Blood on their hands
As more witnesses told their stories and more documents were unearthed, Beauchamp said he came to realize that at least 14 people, five of them black, may have had Till’s blood on their hands.
Five of the alleged culprits — Carolyn Bryant, Henry Lee Loggins and three white men — were still alive, he said.
By 2003, Beauchamp said, he felt he had enough.
He started meeting with federal authorities, presenting them his findings and introducing them to Simeon Wright.
Beauchamp had turned up little completely new information. Much of it, legally, was hearsay. But Wright’s description of the kidnapping was searing. And Beauchamp’s assemblage of witnesses and other evidence made a persuasive argument that the shoddy original investigation needed to be redone.
In May 2004, the Justice Department announced that it was reopening the case.
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed in June for the autopsy officials didn’t perform in 1955.
Federal authorities won’t comment on the investigation. But Beauchamp and Till’s relatives said they are hoping for, and expecting, fresh indictments in coming months.
National release for documentary
Beauchamp’s film, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” premiered Aug. 15 at the United Nations. It opened two days later at the Film Forum in Manhattan and is slated for national distribution.
Beauchamp still lives with a roommate near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in a building with a broken buzzer. He is planning a second film about what he calls modern-day lynchings that have been covered up by authorities.
Carolyn Bryant, now 71 and remarried, did not respond to requests for comment.
Loggins’ son has said he is asking the government to grant the older man immunity. Beauchamp believes no jury would indict or convict an ailing black man whose ability to defy whites in 1950s Mississippi was highly questionable.
Emmett Till’s survivors say a new trial could salve wounds that have lain open for 50 years, and they credit Beauchamp for the possibility.
“If we can get somebody on the witness stand it would bring some closure,” Simeon Wright said. “If Keith hadn’t come along with his film the Emmett Till case never would have been reinvestigated.”