Saturday, February 9, 2019

National Parks Magazine: Emmett Till was murdered 64 years ago

Emmett Till
© Associated Press

Winter 2019

Mississippi Reckoning

By Kate Siber

Emmett Till was murdered 64 years ago. Is it time for a national park that recognizes him and tells the story of the civil rights struggle in Mississippi?

When 14-year-old Emmett Till left Chicago for Mississippi on a southbound train in the summer of 1955, he almost forgot to kiss his mother goodbye. The bright-eyed youth was excited for a big trip to visit his great-uncle, Mose Wright, a sharecropper and preacher who lived in a small home near Money, a Mississippi Delta whistle stop. 

Till was a confident, fun-loving kid, quick to play pranks and joke around. He loved baseball and had a soft spot for animals. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, knew he was unaware of the Jim Crow mores of the South and how dangerous it could be there for African American children like him. Before he left, she tried to impress upon him that Mississippi was different. “Even though you think you’re perfectly within your right, for goodness sake take low,” she said, according to subsequently published accounts. “If necessary, get on your knees and beg apologies.”

It took all day to travel 650 miles to Mississippi, and Till was flowing over with excitement, barely able to sit still. In the great alluvial plain of the Delta, agricultural fields stretched as far as Till could see, punctuated by small copses and the occasional rural settlement. In the depths of August, stifling heat hung heavily over the land, some of the most fertile in the world.

With his cousins, Till fished and swam and horsed around. Then one evening, they went to a local store, Bryant’s Grocery, and just before leaving, Till allegedly whistled at the 21-year-old white proprietor, Carolyn Bryant, breaking one of the South’s most notorious taboos.

A few days later, Till was sleeping when the men came for him. In the predawn darkness, the family could see the gun in the beam of the white men’s flashlight. Wright and his wife, Elizabeth, begged them not to take their nephew. But the men ordered the boy to get dressed, led him out of the house and into a vehicle, possibly a truck, and drove west on gravel roads with the headlights off. Several days later, a fisherman found Till’s body, grossly disfigured from torture, in the Tallahatchie River. Someone had tied a 70-pound cotton gin fan to his neck, hoping he would never be seen again.

But unlike so many African Americans in Mississippi who were murdered, Emmett Till was not forgotten. Till Bradley had his body shipped north for the funeral and then demanded that the casket remain open during the viewing and service so the world could see what white racists had done to her son. Jet magazine subsequently published photographs of Till’s mangled corpse accompanied by his devastated mother, laying bare the racial realities of the Jim Crow South. Till’s murder sparked international outrage and, according to many scholars, helped catalyze the modern civil rights movement. When she refused to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks said she had Till on her mind.

Today, two markers along an isolated dirt road memorialize the site where Till’s body was dragged from the water, but they keep getting shot up and replaced. On an August morning, I pulled over with my tour guide for the day, Jessie Jaynes-Diming, owner of Mississippi Delta Experience Touring. We walked through a clearing to the weed-choked banks of the river. Cicadas buzzed in the heavy morning heat, and dragonflies looped around. It wasn’t hard to imagine how people could disappear here in the murky water. Back at the road, I read the memorial signs, perforated with bullet holes. Someone had stuffed a rose into one of the pockmarks. Jaynes-Diming and I stood there in silence.

“It’s disappointing in a way but enlightening also,” she said finally. “I don’t want to get too comfortable and not know that’s the way people think. If that’s the way they feel about it, leave it like that.”

Jaynes-Diming and I had met in Sumner that morning, in front of the courthouse where an all-white, all-male jury let Till’s killers go free. (They later confessed in a magazine interview.) Over the course of several hours, we visited some of the key landmarks connected to this notorious crime, which still occasionally resurfaces in the news. (In 2018, the Department of Justice informed Congress it had reopened the case because of newly discovered information, which has not yet been disclosed.)

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