Filmmaker works with FBI on civil rights cases
JACKSON, Miss. — As an African American 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 Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who had come to Mississippi to visit his uncle in August 1955, was seared into Beauchamp’s mind, and when he moved to New York to begin his career as a filmmaker, the slaying was his first major project.
Beauchamp’s 2005 documentary on 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, 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.
Now, Beauchamp is filming a series of documentaries based on civil rights killings for the cable channel History as well as
Any new evidence Beauchamp uncovers is shared with the FBI for its Cold Case Unit that focuses on crimes that have gone unpunished from that era.
In turn, the FBI is arranging interviews for Beauchamp with veteran agents who covered the cases and other contacts, said agency spokesman Ernie Porter.
“In the sense that we would go hand-in-hand conducting joint investigations, no. He’s not law enforcement,” said Porter. “What we are doing is cooperating with him.”
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,” Beauchamp said of the FBI.
The filmmaker also knows what it’s like to fear police. He says in 1989 he was beaten by an undercover police officer for dancing with a white friend in Baton Rouge. After that, the Till story “became an educational tool in my family” said Beauchamp, whose parents were teachers.
Beauchamp said the FBI has shared with him their five priority cases. Since then, he’s spent a lot of time in the South, staging re-enactments and interviewing witnesses on film.
On a recent trip to Mississippi, Beauchamp interviewed state Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, at the state Capitol. 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, Jordan peered down a camera lens and discussed how his father, Cleveland Jordan, a black sharecropper who was a civil rights activist, attended Lee’s funeral. Jordan said the preacher had been shot in the face. His killing occurred the same year as Till’s.
“I said then I would not leave Mississippi. I’m going to stay here and fight these conditions,” said Jordan, who was a teenager when the murders occurred.
Beauchamp filmed a re-enactment of Smith’s murder in Raymond, a small, rural town just outside of Jackson. A white man shot 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.
In March, 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 which 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 Chappell’s death. The charges eventually were dropped against everyone except Rich.
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,” Chappell said. “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 Beauchamp, but he believes there’s a chance someone eventually will be indicted.
More than a half-century has passed since Till was snatched from a bed in his uncle’s house in Mississippi. His killers were J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who was then the husband of Donham.
Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days after he was abducted, a cotton gin fan was 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 Milam and Bryant of the murder.
The new district attorney in Leflore County, Dewayne Richardson, said the Till case isn’t closed, but no new information has surfaced.
The FBI said its Till case is inactive.
“I want to keep that on the pedestal,” Beauchamp said, “to finally get justice.”
Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp is photographed at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on April 2, 2008. Beauchamp is filming a series of documentaries based on civil rights killings for the cable channel now known simply as History, as well as the network TV One. Any new evidence Beauchamp uncovers is shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its Cold Case Unit, which focuses on crimes from that era that have gone unpunished. (AP photo/Rogelio V. Solis)