Filmmaker uncovers civil rights cases

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JACKSON, Miss. &

As an African-American teenager growing up in Louisiana, Keith Beauchamp's interracial relationship prompted his parents to tell him the grisly tale of Emmett Till, a Mississippi boy who was murdered for whistling at a white woman.

The story 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 TV One. 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 billyclub-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.

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 the 14-year-old 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."

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