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The Death Of Emmett Till Had Profound Affect On MLK And Civil Rights Movement

Emmitt Till was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Screen shot from "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."

Filmmaker Keith Beauchamp says we often talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a sole figure, without looking at the people and events he was influenced by. One of those key influences, says Beauchamp, was the death of Emmett Till on August 28, 1955. Beauchamp, 44, who is the keynote speaker at the University of Washington-Tacoma’s MLK Jr. Unity Breakfast, made a documentary about Till, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," and is working on a feature film about Till's life.

Till, an African-American teenager, was murdered by whites in the South in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. At the time, Till’s mother insisted on an open casket at the funeral in order to highlight the injustice. Beauchamp says it was a defining moment for the civil rights movement.

“It was because of Till’s death that Dr. King decided to take on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, because he felt that the Emmett Till murder case was an intimidation factor to keep black people away from the polls.” Beauchamp said.

He says learning about the case and how it fits into the bigger picture helps make the civil rights movement more real and shows people the movement’s relevance today. For evidence of its relevance, he says you should look at the number of incidents of young black men being killed by police.

“Every time we hear of these shootings, it brings us back to Emmett Till,” he said.

Beauchamp says he had his own wake-up call to racism just as he was about to graduate from high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

It was 1989 and he was at a pre-graduation party.

“I was assaulted by an undercover police officer for dancing with a white classmate of mine,” Beauchamp said.

It drove him to want to fight injustice, something he tries to do with his films.

“It’s unfortunate that, as time goes on, King’s dream becomes somewhat of a myth. In a sense you can’t touch that energy, but I’m here to say the civil rights movement still exists; the movement wasn’t just Dr. King,” Beauchamp said.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.