Saturday, July 11, 2009

For Emmett

The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till
after the murder,
after the burial
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

Gwendolyn Brooks~ 1960

Most people know the story of Till, a black kid from Chicago who was beaten to death at the age of 14 because he had the nerve to whistle at a white woman in the lovely little cracker shithole known as Money, Mississippi. His eye was gouged out, and he was shot in the head. His body was weighted down with the fan from a cotton gin, and his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River where it lay for 3 days before being discovered.

Till had traveled to Mississippi in August 1955 to stay with his uncle, Moses Wright. Three days after hs arrival, he was outside a general store owned by Roy Bryant and his wife Carolyn. Accounts vary but there's general agreement that, on a dare, Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant. Considering the timing of the "event", hot on the heels of Brown v Board of Education, and the location, deep in the heart of cracker country, it's somewhat understandable that Till's uncle told him he should get the hell out of that place.

Roy Bryant had been out of town on the 24th, but upon his return his 21 year old wife told him of Till's act of public defiance. Blacks just didn't whistle at white women in 1955 Mississippi.

According to most accounts, Bryant and his half-brother J.W.Milam drove to Wright's house in the middle of the night, 12:30 AM Sunday Aug 28th, and roused Emmett from his sleep. They took him to Carolyn Bryant to confirm his identity as the person doing the whistling (or grabbing her about the waist asking for a date, or saying "Bye, baby.." depending on which story is to be believed.) Once she IDd Emmett as the offender, he was tossed in a pickup truck and taken to a beat up old shed on a plantation in nearby Sunflower County.

Initially, with Till still missing, Bryant and Milam claimed they had indeed taken him for a ride, but insisted they were just trying to scare Emmett, and only roughed him up a bit before releasing him. After hearing about Emmett, Medgar Evers went to Money, and passed himself off as a cotton picker so he could interview others about the missing Chicago kid.

Within 3 days, a body was discovered in the Tallahatchie, bloated and beaten beyond recognition. A ring on a dead finger, given to Till by his father, allowed positive identification. The dead body in the river was Emmett Till.

Bryant and Milam stood trial, and were acquitted by an all white jury of 12 men. Deliberations took just over an hour. According to one juror, it would have taken less time, but they stopped for a soda break.

Till's murder was seen as one of several key events during that shameful period of US history which led directly to the Civil Rights Movement.

After their acquittal, and thanks to laws protecting them against double jeopardy, Bryant and Milam admitted to killing Till in a January 1956 article in Look Magazine. They were paid $4000 for the story.

Emmett's body was brought back to Chicago. At the funeral, Mamie Carthan Till, Emmett's mother, insisted the casket be open."I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby." Emmett was buried at Burr Oak Cemetery on Sept 6, 1955. (the same day Bryant and Milam were indicted.)

In 2004, the US Dept of Justice announced that they were reopening the case to see if anyone else was involved in Emmett's murder. No autopsy had ever been performed, so the FBI exhumed Till's body in May 2005. After the autopsy was performed by the Cook County Coroner's Office, identifying the remains as those of Emmett Till, the body was reburied in a new casket.

Till's original glass topped casket was to be used as a shrine to Emmett, as well as the Civil Rights Movement according to the people who ran Burr Oak Cemetery. Instead, they tossed Emmett Till's casket in a storage shed where it has become home to a family of possums. 

The people running Burr Oak Cemetery are now under investigation for re-selling as many as 300 plots. There are reports of bones being scattered about in rows of hedges, and trucks being loaded up with the remains of unearthed bodies.

Initially, it was feared that Emmett Till's grave had been dug up, the body discarded, and the plot sold again as part of this massive scandal that has rocked Chicago. As it turns out, it appears Till's body is still in his grave.

As of this morning, a new section of Burr Oak has been found to be the site of more grave digging and Tom Dart, Cook County Sheriff has now declared the entire Burr Oak Cemetery a crime scene.

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