The Sun Times reports today that one of the finds at Burr Oak Cemetery was the original (empty since a 2005 exhumation) casket of Emmit Till, an accidental martyr of the civil rights movement, rotting away in a shed, surrounded by garbage and inhabited by a family of possums. It should be noted that Till’s was NOT one of the bodies dug up and dumped; he was exhumed a few years ago and reburied in a different coffin. The original iconic glass coffin was to be a part of a memorial; money raised for it was apparently pocketed by one of the people who has been arrested for dumping the bodies around.
Till’s glass coffin was a priceless icon of the civil rights movement – one of the most horrifying things about the injustices committed against black Americans just because they were black throughout the first half of the 20th century was that no one really seemed to give a damn – but after Emmit Till, they could no longer look away.
Till was a 14 year old Chicagoan who was visiting Mississippi in 1955. After allegedly whistling at a white woman, a couple of guys kidnapped, beat, tortured, and murdered him. Two men were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury who barely deliberated at all – and, knowing they could never be retried, cheerfully admitted the next year that they had been the killers.
Till’s mother insisted on showing the world what had happened to her son – the casket had a glass top, and a photo of his mutilated face was shown around the world. People could no longer look away. Well, they COULD, but they could no longer pretend that things weren’t really all that bad, or that the civil rights movement was just a bunch of angry poor people letting off steam (or, again, they COULD, but they’d look like – and still look like – massive jerks).
I was a bit dismissive of the crime yesterday – yes, it HAS happened before – but as the story progresses, and the number of desecrated graves rises to the 300s, I’m getting progressively angrier.
The Death of Emmit Till – an early Bob Dylan song