Have you ever heard of Emmett Till? On this date fifty-seven years ago, 14 year old Till was beaten, tortured and shot in the head for allegedly whistling and/or flirting at a white woman while visiting his uncle in Mississippi. The white men who killed him weighed down his body with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His swollen, disfigured body was discovered three days later at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River.
Till, a Chicago native, was not prepared for the level of Jim Crow segregation in the Deep South and had been warned by his mother to behave differently in front of whites and to take care of himself.
His death drew national attention and is considered a seminal event of the Civil Rights movement. One of the reasons for this was his mother’s decision to halt an immediate burial down in Mississippi and demand an open casket for her dead son. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she famously said. Tens of thousands of people visited the A.A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago, while photographs of his mutilated corpse circulated around the country.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white bus rider, sparking a year-long boycott of the public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, she later said, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”
His murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, were acquitted in minutes by a jury of all white men, despite the testimony of witnesses who saw them dragging Till out of the house the night of his murder. Later after the trial the men admitted unrepentantly to killing Till, while protected by double jeopardy, which forbids a person from being tried twice for the same crime. So they got away with it.
Emmett Till was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois (south of Chicago). He was exhumed in 2005 when the case was reopened in hopes of confirming other participants in the crime. As is customary with exhumations, Emmett’s body was reburied in a new casket. The original one was supposed to be preserved for a memorial museum, but instead it was tossed into a dilapidated storage shed. In 2009, the cemetery manager and three laborers were charged with digging up bodies, dumping them in a remote area, and reselling plots. They had also embezzled the money that was supposed to go into Till’s memorial fund.
Emmett’s body was spared, but his casket was rusted and discolored (although the glass top was still intact) with a family of possums living inside it. That year his family donated the original casket to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015.