Saturday, July 11, 2009

Rest in Peace, Emmett Till

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

If there was ever a troubled soul who deserved to rest in peace, surely it would be that of Emmett Till. The strikingly handsome black youth was murdered in a brutal hate crime in 1955 near the small town of Money, Mississippi. His death is generally agreed to be the spark that lit the American Civil Rights movement.

The past:

Young Mr. Till and his cousin arrived in the Mississippi Delta country on August 21, 1955, to stay with his grand-uncle, Reverend Moses Wright. The Delta was a warren of small towns, white bigots, and colored folk who “knew their place.” Before leaving his hometown of Chicago, Till’s mother, Miss Mamie, cautioned her son to “mind his manners” around white people. Mamie Till had grown up in the Delta, and she knew well that racial attitudes there were much more pronounced and dangerous than they were in Chicago.

Three days after his arrival in Mississippi, Emmett and some other black youths entered Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market where they intended to buy sodas and perhaps some candy. Uncle Moses was out in front of the store playing checkers. What happened inside the store remains unclear to this day. It was being run by twenty-one-year-old Carolyn Bryant. Her husband, Roy Bryant, was on a road trip and was not due to return for a couple of days. Emmett Till seems to have momentarily forgotten his place around the young white woman and either wolf-whistled at her, spoke to her in an inappropriate manner, or touched her. It is possible he was egged on by his companions, or even given a dare.

Whatever happened in Bryant’s Grocery did not sit well with Carolyn Bryant, and she talked the incident up around town. When her husband returned a few days later, he felt honor bound to put the boy in his place and set things straight.

Sometime shortly after midnight on the morning of August 28, 1955, Roy and Carolyn Bryant, Roy’s step-brother, J.W. Milam, and an unidentified individual got into Roy’s car and drove to the home of Moses Wright. Roy beat on Reverend Wright’s door and finally succeeded in getting Emmett outside where Carolyn identified him as the boy who had disrespected her. The group took Emmett and left. The next day when he did not return, Reverend Wright reported the incident to local law enforcement. When Roy was questioned he said that they had pushed the young man around and scared him, and that he had run off and was probably heading back to Chicago.

The body of Emmett Till surfaced in the Tallahatchie River a couple of days later. He had been beaten, shot, tied to a seventy pound cotton gin fan with barbed wire, and dumped in the river. Suspicion fell on Bryant and Milam who denied killing Till. The badly disfigured body, they argued, was not even that of Till. He was identified, however, by a ring that he was wearing which had belonged to his father.

A local mortuary tried to get the body of Emmett Till safely in the ground where the brutality of what had happened to him would be forever buried, but Till’s mother would not have it. Miss Mamie insisted that his body be brought back to Chicago for burial.

A Mississippi mortician spent an entire evening trying to make the corpse presentable before it was shipped north. The state of Mississippi instructed the funeral home in Chicago to leave the casket closed. Again, Miss Mamie would have none of that. She insisted that the casket be opened so that she could tell her son good-bye. When she saw how horrifically disfigured Emmett was, she made the hard decision to have the casket open at the funeral. She wanted the world to see what the segregationist south had done to her son.

Fifty thousand people viewed the body of Emmett Till, and Jet Magazine published photos of his corpse for those who couldn’t make it to Chicago for the service. Much of America, even white America, was outraged. The fuse for the Civil Rights Movement had been lit.

Emmett Till was laid to rest in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois - but there would be no peace for the youth, even in death.

Emmet’s father, Louis Till, had left his family shortly after Emmett was born in July of 1941. By 1943 he had joined the army and was fighting in Italy. It was during the Italian campaign that the family received official word that he had been killed. They assumed that was the end of his story.

As the world began to turn on Mississippi and the segregationist practices of the south, Mississippi’s Senator James Eastland released information about Louis Till to try and lessen the impact that Miss Mamie was having. He reported that Louis Till had been arrested for two rapes and one murder in Italy, and had been executed by the military. The implication was, of course, the son of a rapist animal could hardly be expected to be any better himself.

Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were tried for the murder of Emmett Till in the state of Mississippi. It took the all male, all white jury just sixty-seven minutes to acquit them of the crime. One juror remarked, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken us so long.” The following year both men sold their stories to Look Magazine for $4,000 each. Both men. protected by double jeopardy, admitted that they had killed Emmett Till. Milam said that they had intended to simply pistol whip him and threaten to throw him off of a cliff, but the spunky youth would not be cowed. Emmett’s bravery and pride cost him his life.

A new investigation into the death of Emmett Till was opened by the federal government in 2004. At that time his body was exhumed for a forensic autopsy. He was later reburied in the same plot, but in a new casket. The original casket was set aside and plans were for it to become part of an historical display.

The present:

Burr Oak Cemetery, the place where Emmett Till is buried, is today a crime scene. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has announced that hundreds of bodies have been dug up and dumped into an overgrown section of the cemetery – and the freed up plots have been resold to others. Some of the cemetery’s operators are facing criminal charges.

Supposedly the grave of Emmett Till was not disturbed during this disgusting episode of greed run amok, but authorities did make one startling discovery involving the Civil Rights martyr. Till’s original casket was found inside of an open storage shed where it had been abandoned. Some wildlife had adopted it for a home.

In time some of the remains will find their way back to their original burial spots – but others will probably undergo the indignity of being shoveled into a common grave. In time the shocked relatives will leave the cemetery and put this horror behind them. In time the police will be gone, the yellow tape will come down, and Burr Oak will resume a peaceful existence. One can only hope that this time Emmett Till will be left to rest in peace – eternally.

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