In response to the investigation, donnie l. betts re-released an episode from his podcast Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days that originally premiered in September 2020. “A Letter From Heaven to America From Emmett Till” is an audio drama that features Owen Zitek (as Till), Betty Hart (as Mamie Till), Brian Landis Folkins, Monique Brooks Roberts, Lionel Young, Annastezhaa Mitchell-Curtis and betts.
“The families are still suffering; there’s no sense of justice that has ever been resolved,” says betts. “Through the work of Mamie Till [Emmett’s mother], his story was told.” Till’s mother took her son’s body to Chicago in an open casket, and his murder sparked a shift in the civil rights movement at the time.
“My emphasis for re-releasing the broadcast was mostly due to the decision by the Department of Justice,” betts explains. The episode focuses on injustice in the criminal justice system, using comparisons between Till’s murder and ongoing police brutality in the country, highlighted by the murder of Elijah McClain in 2019.
Betts is a renowned conductor of all things theater and film, and founded two theater companies in Denver — City Stage Ensemble and the Denver Black Arts Company — in addition to his film and video production company, No Credits Productions. Between producing, directing and performing, he was nominated for an Emmy for his film Dearfield: The Road Less Traveled, a historical docudrama about the Black farming community that settled that town. Now he’s honoring the late Richard Durham’s legacy of showcasing stories that focus on Black resistance in his reboot of audio dramas for Destination Freedom, which was also the name of Durham’s radio show that ran from 1949 to 1951.
“Stories of people of color are still underrepresented in the media,” betts says, adding that it’s important to tell stories about ordinary people who did extraordinary things. They may not be a senator or a congressperson — they may be someone who’s running a nonprofit or someone who just saw a need in the community.”
He traveled to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, digging through archives and cassette tapes of Destination Freedom‘s original runs on WMAQ in Chicago. There he connected with researchers, authors, scholars and Durham’s widow, Clarice, to further Durham’s legacy.
Betts also visited the funeral home in Money, Mississippi, where Till’s body was put to rest, and spoke to the burial director. “This was years before I wrote the story” for the podcast, he says, “but the images were still in my head and on my heart.” In July 2020, betts interviewed Deborah Watts, Emmett Till’s cousin and founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, for his other podcast, The Eclectic, which also debuted on January 5.
“They are still fighting for justice,” he says. “Even though the U.S. Justice Department can’t do much now, locally, the district and state attorney in Mississippi can do something. They can still bring charges so that Emmett can get justice.”
Despite rare convictions such as those in the cases of George Floyd’s and Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers, police accountability remains low, betts notes: “People say the system is broken. I think it’s set up the way it’s always been set up to be, and that is to not bring justice to people of color, to people who can’t afford attorneys. The system protects the system. The introduction of cell phones has changed a lot of things.” Betts is working on a film called Stop Resisting, which will focus on the use of force in the United States and the trails left by body cameras and phones.
Listeners can tune in for future episodes of Destination Freedom focusing on the Stonewall rebellion, written by T. Carlis Roberts, and a followup to “Give Me Liberty: A Free Man Story,” which premiered in September 2020. Betts is currently doing interviews for an episode of The Eclectic about Black jockeys in the Kentucky Derby, which he plans to premiere in May. Episodes are generally released every other Wednesday on the Broadway Podcast Network.
“I love radio, and I listened to a lot of old-time radio before I became interested in Destination Freedom. I like the way it made me feel because I had to use my imagination, close my eyes and think. A lot of my research has to do with whether it will make people close their eyes and think. If it makes them think, it’ll inspire more research, more education and perhaps more justice,” betts concludes.
Subscribe and listen to the Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days on the Broadway Podcast Network, or anywhere that podcasts are streamed.