Friday was the 54th anniversary of Emmett Till’s lynching. To mark the occasion, his family announced the donation of his original casket to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Chicago native Emmett Till was just 14 years old when he was beaten, tortured and shot in the head for allegedly whistling/flirting/touching the hand or waist of a white woman (the witnesses’ stories are inconsistent on what actually happened) while visiting his uncle in Money, Mississippi. The case drew national attention and is considered a seminal event of the Civil Rights era.
His casket played a pivotal role in this history, as his mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted against all kinds of pressure from Mississippi authorities that it be open for viewing and photographing. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she has famously said, and she got her way.
A picture of the mutilated boy published in Jet magazine went around the world, publicizing the horrors of the Jim Crow South and galvanizing the fledgling Civil Rights Movement.
His murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam (the husband of the white woman in question and his half-brother), were acquitted in minutes by a jury of all white men, despite Till’s uncle’s testimony that they had dragged him out of the house and other witnesses who saw them with Till and heard Emmett’s cries shortly thereafter. The killers even admitted it in Look Magazine once the trial was over and died entirely unrepentant.
He was buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, and then 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 shed by the incredibly creepy cemetery manager who seems to also have embezzled the memorial donations.
That manager and several gravediggers made the news recently for having dug up hundreds of bodies, dumped them and resold the plots. Emmett’s body seems to have been spared, but his casket was not. It was found rusting in a garage full of broken headstones, lawn care equipment and assorted trash. There was apparently a family of possums living in the casket.
Now the casket, its glass viewing window still intact, is safe in the hands of the Rayner and Sons mortuary, the same funeral home which first prepared Emmett’s body for burial. They will send it to the Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center for restoration and conservation until it can be displayed in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.