- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

JACKSON, MISS. — As a black teenager in Louisiana, Keith Beauchamp tried interracial dating — behavior that prompted his parents to tell him the grisly tale of Emmett Till, who was murdered for whistling at a white woman.

The story of Mr. Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who had come to Mississippi to visit his uncle in August 1955, was seared into Mr. Beauchamp’s mind, and when he moved to New York to begin his career as a filmmaker, the slaying was the subject of his first major project.

Mr. Beauchamp’s 2005 documentary on Mr. Till, in large part, led the federal government to reopen the 1955 murder case. Last year, a grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, the object of the whistle, on a manslaughter charge. The two men who brutally beat the teen and dumped his body in a river died years ago.

Still, Mr. Beauchamp’s documentary expertise and his ability to persuade people to talk about buried secrets of the civil rights era have earned him a rare collaboration with the FBI.

He’s filming a series of documentaries based on civil rights killings for the History cable channel as well as TV One. Any new evidence Mr. Beauchamp uncovers is shared with the FBI for its Cold Case Unit, which focuses on crimes from that era that have gone unpunished.

In turn, the FBI is arranging interviews for Mr. Beauchamp with veteran agents who covered the cases and other contacts, says agency spokesman Ernie Porter.

“In the sense that we would go hand in hand conducting joint investigations, no. He’s not law enforcement,” Mr. Porter says. “What we are doing is cooperating with him.”

Mr. Beauchamp believes he’s able to coax more from potential witnesses because he doesn’t carry the stigma often associated with law enforcement officers. Images of billy-club-wielding policemen breaking up rallies and protests are still etched in many memories.

“For the first time in history, they are allowing a filmmaker to assist them in setting up a justice-seeking atmosphere that will allow eyewitnesses who may have information to feel comfortable coming forward,” Mr. Beauchamp says of the FBI.

The filmmaker also knows what it’s like to fear police. He says he was beaten by an undercover police officer in 1989 for dancing with a white friend in Baton Rouge. After that, the Till story “became an educational tool in my family” says Mr. Beauchamp, whose parents were teachers.

Mr. Beauchamp says the FBI has shared with him its five priority cases. Since then, he has spent a lot of time in the South, staging re-enactments and interviewing witnesses on film.

On a recent trip to Mississippi, he interviewed state Sen. David Jordan at the state Capitol. Mr. Jordan was questioned about the 1955 murders of the Rev. George Wesley Lee and Lamar Smith. The men were killed months apart, but for the same reason: They were trying to register blacks to vote.

In a darkened committee room, Mr. Jordan peered down a camera lens and discussed how his father, Cleveland Jordan, a black sharecropper who was a civil rights activist, attended Mr. Lee’s funeral.

Mr. Jordan said the preacher had been shot in the face. His killing occurred the same year as Emmett Till’s.

“I said then I would not leave Mississippi. I’m going to stay here and fight these conditions,” says Mr. Jordan, who was a teenager when the murders occurred.

Mr. Beauchamp filmed a re-enactment of Mr. Smith’s murder in Raymond, a small rural town just outside Jackson. A white man shot Mr. Smith to death on a courthouse lawn in front of a crowd of spectators in 1955. Three people were arrested, but no one was ever indicted in the case.

Last month, Mr. Beauchamp and his film crew were in Jacksonville, Fla., where they taped a re-enactment of the 1964 shooting death of Johnnie Mae Chappell. The mother of 10 was gunned down by four white men in a car as she walked along a road, looking for her wallet.

She was headed home to her children, the youngest of whom was 4 months old, when she was attacked. The killing occurred as race riots were erupting in the city.

Elmer Kato, Wayne Chessman, James Davis and J.W. Rich were indicted on first-degree murder charges in Mrs. Chappell’s death. The charges eventually were dropped against everyone except Mr. Rich.

Mr. Rich, who said he accidentally fired the gun, served three years in prison on a manslaughter conviction.

All four men are still alive.

On the day of filming in Jacksonville, the victim’s youngest child waited hours to watch his mother’s final moments unfold. Shelton Chappell, now 44, said he’s hopeful the documentary and the renewed interest in the case will lead to justice.

“She was left out over the years,” Mr. Chappell says. “This was the same time three civil rights workers were killed. They sent 200 FBI agents to Mississippi, but what did they send to Jacksonville?”

The hour-long shows are scheduled to begin airing this summer on TV One and History.

The outcome of the Till case still rankles Mr. Beauchamp, but he says he believes there’s a chance someone eventually will be indicted.

More than a half-century has passed since Mr. Till was snatched from a bed in his uncle’s house in Mississippi. His killers were J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who then was married to Mrs. Donham.

Mr. Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days after he was abducted. A cotton gin fan had been tied around his neck with barbed wire. His left eye was missing, as were most of his teeth; his nose was crushed, and there was a hole in his right temple.

Jet Magazine ran a picture of his body, and the killing was viewed as the beginning of the civil rights movement. An all-white Tallahatchie County jury later acquitted Mr. Milam and Mr. Bryant of the murder.

The new district attorney in Leflore County, Dewayne Richardson, says the Till case isn’t closed, but no new information has surfaced.

The FBI says its Till case is inactive.

“I want to keep that on the pedestal,” Mr. Beauchamp says, “to finally get justice.”


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