Sixty-eight years ago a mother received a call that her child was dead. That same mother, who sent her 14-year-old son from Chicago to Money, Mississippi, to see family on Aug. 24, 1955, never expected to lose him, let alone be terrorized and mutilated to the point of unrecognition three days later. His body had been recovered from the bottom of the Tallahatchie River - tied to a cotton gin fan with barbed wire. Her son had been shot in the head and beaten to death, all because a white woman—behind the counter of a convenience store—claimed he grabbed, cat-called and whistled at her.
Having been identified only by the ring on his finger due to the brutal killing, 14-year-old Emmett Till's body was flown back to Chicago at the request of his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley. This story has stood the test of time because Bradley held an open casket to expose the racism and inhumane treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, a form of bravery and activism written in history books and more recently depicted in the movie Till (2022).
"The film does a remarkable job of portraying the courage and resilience of Emmett Till's mother," Samford Professor Christopher Metress said. "Unlike many works about this case, Till never lets you forget that this brutal lynching is at its core, a story about a mother who refused to let her son die in vain."
Metress, who holds the rank of university professor in recognition of his interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship at Samford, has spent nearly 30 years researching Emmett Till's case. He has written and co-authored numerous books and essays about the lynching and has been featured as an expert in articles published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, as well as in documentaries and true crime podcasts.
"My initial interest in the case started when I learned about William Bradford Huie's 1955 interview with the two men who murdered Emmett Till," Metress said. "In this interview, the two men confessed to killing the young boy, and although their confession was full of falsehoods, it captured a deeper truth about the brutality of racism during the Jim Crow era. I wanted to learn more about who these men were and why they were willing to confess openly to such a heinous crime. From there, a more complete story began to emerge, one focusing on Emmett Till, his mother and the larger struggle for justice."
The publication of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, Metress's best-known work on the case, coincided with the completion of Keith Beauchamp’s 2002 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Till. The film and book were released together during an event at New York University, attended by Mamie Till-Bradley. According to Devery Anderson, a fellow historian who also attended the White House screening, said Metress’s 2002 book “is perhaps the most important work done on the subject. It was clearly a game changer and any historian writing on the case since has benefited immensely from his discoveries.”
"I'd like to think that some of the findings in my book, which complemented the research in Keith Beauchamp’s film, encouraged law enforcement officials to reinvestigate the case after a 30-year hiatus," Metress said. "Fast forward to 2023, and Keith one of the screenwriters for Till, so there is a certain symmetry to the last two decades."
Metress's contributions throughout the years had not gone unnoticed. He was among a select group of individuals to receive an invitation to the White House for the screening of Till last month.
"It was indeed a surprise," Metress said. "After I received the invitation via email, I contacted other historians to see if they had received one. They had, but we never quite figured out who was particularly responsible for inviting us."
Once he arrived, it was clear to Metress that this was not just a celebration for the film but also for the people who kept Till's story alive. In addition to Metress and those associated with the movie, activists, politicians, Justice Department officials and Till's family were all there to attend the screening.
In recalling President Joe Biden's remarks, Metress said, "He praised the film but also addressed the larger gathering saying, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you for never giving up.’ I think that's why they invited those of us who have been researching and writing about the case. Behind our research is a deep conviction that Emmett Till's story matters and that telling it is essential to understanding our past and present."
Metress found it even more rewarding to discover that his research had a significant impact on the making of the film.
"It was during the reception after the screening that several of us learned how important our work was to the filmmakers," Metress said. "They told us they had used our findings and research to create and develop key scenes."
The Tills never got the justice they deserved. Two weeks after the killing, the two men responsible, Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman who accused Till, Carolyn Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went on trial. The all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before declaring the two not guilty.
"The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all," the actress playing Mamie Till-Bradley says at the film's end.
"That message resonates still," Metress said. "What happened to Emmett Till had better be the business of us all. The film Till keeps that message alive and will introduce a new generation to this critical moment in American history.”