WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Thursday hosted a screening of the movie ” Till,” a wrenching, new drama about the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, who was brutally killed after a white woman said the Black 14-year-old had made improper advances toward her.
“History matters,” Biden said in brief remarks before the lights in the East Room came down on invited guests, including members of Till’s family. He noted that while some might want to ignore the nation’s history, “Only with truth comes healing and justice.”
Biden said he’s come to learn that “hate never goes away,” and that the only thing that stops it is for the entire country to condemn it.
“There’s only one thing that stops it: all of us,” Biden said. “Silence is complicity.”
Among the members of Till’s family was a cousin who is suing in federal court to force a Mississippi county sheriff to serve a recently discovered 1955 arrest warrant on the now nearly 90-year-old woman who complained about the young man.
Biden did not comment on the suit, but thanked members of Till’s family for “never, ever, ever giving up” in the pursuit of justice.
Others attendees included actors Danielle Deadwyler, who stars as Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley; Jalyn Hall, who plays Emmett; Whoopi Goldberg, who had the supporting role of Emmett’s maternal grandmother; and Chinonye Chukwu, the Nigerian American filmmaker who directed “Till.”
Also in the audience, where popcorn and candy were passed out and a pack of tissues placed on each seat, were students, civil rights leaders, historians and families of victims of hate-fueled violence.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said this week that it was important to the president to host the screening during Black History Month “to lift this movie up” and to make sure that Till’s story is not forgotten.
Last March, Biden signed legislation named for Till that made lynching a federal hate crime. Congress had first considered such legislation more than 120 years ago.
Hours before the screening, Biden signed an executive order requiring federal agencies to conduct annual reviews aimed at increasing access by disadvantaged communities to federal programs, services and activities.
Biden also held a White House summit last year on violence inspired by hate.
“There’s still a lot more work to be done. The work is not done,” Jean-Pierre said. “But the president is going to do everything that he can in his power at — in the federal government, in this White House, to make sure that we address issues like this.”
She declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The torture and killing of Till in the Mississippi Delta became a catalyst for the civil rights movement after his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago to show his mutilated body to the world. Jet magazine published the photos.
Till’s cousin, Priscilla Sterling, and her lawyers said they planned to try to deliver copies of the suit to the Justice Department on Friday.
Till family members, including Sterling, said Thursday at an appearance in Washington that they will appeal to the department to reopen the investigation into his death. Lawyer Malik Shabazz said the investigation was unfairly narrow. “A movie is nice. Justice is much better,” he said.
Last June, a team doing research at the courthouse in Leflore County, Mississippi, found an unserved 1955 arrest warrant for Carolyn Bryant, listed on that document as “Mrs. Roy Bryant.”
Sterling filed the suit last week against Ricky Banks, the current Leflore County sheriff, seeking to compel Banks to serve the warrant on Bryant, who now goes by Carolyn Bryant Donham after remarrying.
Till had traveled from Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. Donham accused him of making improper advances on her at a grocery store in the small community of Money. A cousin of Till who was there has said Till whistled at the woman, an act that flew in the face of Mississippi’s racist social codes of the era.
Evidence indicates a woman, possibly Donham, identified Till to the men who later killed him. The arrest warrant against Donham was publicized in 1955, but the county sheriff at the time told reporters he didn’t want to “bother” her since she was raising two young children.
Weeks after Till’s body was found in a river, Roy Bryant, Donham’s first husband, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were tried for murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. Months later, the men confessed in a paid interview with Look magazine.
Now in her late 80s, Donham has lived in North Carolina and Kentucky in recent years. She has not commented publicly on calls for her to be prosecuted.
Sterling said she would plead the Tills’ case to Biden.
“The family has been waiting 68 years for Carolyn Bryant to be prosecuted,” she said. “Will he do it? Will he help us prosecute Carolyn Bryant while she’s still alive?”
The Justice Department announced in December 2021 that it had ended its latest investigation into the lynching of Till, without bringing charges against anyone.
After researchers found the arrest warrant last June, the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch said there was no new evidence to try to pursue a criminal case against Donham. In August, a district attorney said a Leflore County grand jury had declined to indict Donham.
Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.