Civil Rights: 'We Owe It To Emmett'

It's a story that has haunted the country for nearly 50 years. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago, was kidnapped and brutally murdered after whistling at a white woman while visiting Mississippi. The two men suspected in the crime were acquitted--even though they confessed to the abduction. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was intrigued by the case, which he calls "the story of American racism taken to its most extreme." His documentary, "The Murder of Emmett Till," won an Emmy--and spurred a letter-writing campaign that helped reopen the case. Nelson had been expecting to make a historical film but, he says, "once we got to Mississippi we found very quickly that there were many people there that had stories to tell who probably should have testified but didn't because they were scared."

For him, the story that stands out was from a man named Oudie Brown. "He said he saw a man washing blood out of his truck. And he asked the man whose blood that was, and the man said, 'Oh, it's Emmett Till's blood.' Oudie says he drove to the court to try to volunteer to tell this story, but once he got to the court and saw all of the men standing around with guns, he turned around and drove home. And he's lived with that for all this time." There have long been doubts that only the two suspects were involved in the crime, and the new accounts suggest that several more people took part in or knew about the murder. "We owe it to Emmett Till, we owe it to his mother and to his family, and we owe it to ourselves to see if, after all these years, any additional measure of justice is possible," said the Justice Department's R. Alexander Acosta. Nelson says Till's mother, who was interviewed for his film but has since died, would want the case reopened, "but I don't think that that's what drove her to keep the story alive. She said over and over again, 'I want people to know about my son's murder and death because I don't want this to ever happen to anyone again'."