Like most people I’ve been watching the news out of Aslip, Illinois’ Burr Oak Cemetery and I am appalled. Crime is by definition offensive to the community, but the burial plot resale scam and desecration of human remains we’ve seen in Burr Oak is truly humanity at its lowest. The scope of the crime is staggering, and to call it reprehensible is a gross understatement.
With more than 300 graves compromised, and families coming from all over the country to inquire about their relatives, it seemed difficult to bring the crime down to size, and I couldn’t see a way to wrap my mind around the enormity of it until the original glass-topped coffin of fourteen year old Emmett Till was found in a rusted shed in an isolated corner of the cemetery.
Now most of us know the story of Emmett Till. In August, 1955, Emmett “Bobo” Till was in Money, Mississippi with his mother to visit relatives. On Wednesday, August 24, young Emmett and a small group of his cousins found themselves in front of Roy and Carolyn Bryant’s country store. At the time, Carolyn Bryant, a petite, 21 year old Irish girl, was at the store alone. There are multiple accounts of what happened next. The Bryants and their supporters claim that Emmett was bragging about having sex with white women up in Chicago and his disbelieving Delta cousins put him up to soliciting Carolyn Bryant. There are claims that his come on to her was lewd and offensive, and may have involved a wolf whistle and even grabbing her by the wrist. Emmett Till’s family, friends and supporters claim that Emmett had a speech impediment that made many of his words sound like he was whistling. They deny he spoke offensively to Carolyn Bryant and that, if anything, what happened was a misunderstanding between a southern lady and a northern big city young man; a cultural miscommunication rather than a lewd come on.
Speaking objectively, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two versions. But regardless of what really happened that evening at the store, there is no doubt about what happened next. In the wee hours of the following Sunday morning, Roy Bryant, 24, and his 36 year old half brother J.W. Milam went to the house where Emmett Till was staying, pulled him out of bed, drove him to a barn, beat him savagely, then shot him in the head and tossed him into the Tallahatchie River, anchored by a 74 pound cotton gin fan secured around his neck with barbed wire. Emmett Till’s mangled body was found three days later by a pair of fisherman. When the news spread to the rest of the country it was apparent that Emmett Till’s punishment far outweighed whatever offense he may have originally committed.
The identity of the murderers was hardly a secret, and there was a trial that proved to be as much of a circus as the O.J. Simpson trial would be forty years later. Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the murder charge by an all-white jury and strutted down the courthouse steps, smiling and shaking hands with well-wishers. A few months later, in an interview published in the January 24, 1956 edition of Look magazine, Bryant and Milam confessed to the murder and gave their own grizzly, blow by blow version of the crime.
Meanwhile, Emmett Till’s mother, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, was left with her grief and the brutalized body of her son to bury. She chose a glass-topped coffin so that the whole world could see the horror that had been played out against her child. “Let the funeral wait,” Mrs. Bradley was quoted as saying in the Cleveland Call and Post on September 10, 1955, “so that more people may see my boy.” Accordingly, the body was put on display in Chicago, where nearly fifty thousand people lined up for a look. Jet Magazine’s photo spread of the funeral, and specifically of the horribly disfigured body, generated some of the most intensely powerful scenes of the civil rights movement.
Emmett Till’s case caught the eye of the nation from the very start. His trial was a major media event. Thousands of reporters covered the case from every angle and nearly every major media outlet ran a story on it. Later, there would be books and documentaries. Bebe Moore Campbell and Lewis Nordan wrote deeply moving novels on the case. Dave McEnery and Bob Dylan wrote ballads about the murder. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde wrote poems about it. Toni Morrison did a wonderful play about the case called Dreaming Emmett. All the coverage led to changes in legislation and quickened the pace of the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, for example, said one reason she refused to give up her seat was that couldn’t get the images of Emmett Till’s mangled body out of her mind.
So, is it appropriate to say that the brutality Emmett Till suffered led to a better world? His murder wasn’t the only keystone event in the civil rights movement, but it was a significant one nonetheless. And we are definitely a morally richer, and saner, nation for having gone through the civil rights movement. There is no question about that. But I keep coming back to the words of Gerald Chatham, the District Attorney who presided over the case against Bryant and Milam, when he said, “The first words offered in testimony here were dripping with the blood of Emmett Till.”
You see, I can’t get over the idea that Emmett Till’s life has been taken from him–not by Bryant and Milam, but by everyone around him. He’s been appropriated for a cause–a good and true cause, yes, but still a cause–and turned into a symbol. The truth, really, is that his legacy has been a horror show.
Five years ago, a documentary raised enough questions about the case to justify reopening it and exhuming the body for a proper autopsy. Out came the glass-topped coffin, which ended up in Burr Oak Cemetery, where it was supposed to eventually serve as a center piece in a civil rights museum. Emmett was reburied in a standard coffin.
Fortunately, his remains don’t seem to have been disturbed by the Burr Oak grave robbers, but that doesn’t mean he’s been left alone. First, his misery was made a focal point for change in the Mississippi of the 1950s. Then his memory was appropriated by the civil rights movement. Next he was literally dug up and used as a prop in a criminal investigation that, while arguably necessary and conducted in good faith, in the end resulted in nothing more than a dog and pony show. And now, when it seemed that at long last Emmett Till might be able to rest in peace, he’s been made the object of a disgusting bait and switch scam. In all likelihood he will probably become the public face of the Burr Oak Cemetery tragedy.
What makes me so uncomfortable about this is that behind all the great causes and hideous crimes, we are still talking about a fourteen year old child who has been denied his own identity by constantly being remade into a symbol. I am torn. I see how an outraged generation took his death and made a better world. I see how lawmakers used his murder as a way to put good laws in the books. But I also see a child whose life was cut short by insane cruelty. I see a family torn apart. I can’t help but think his mother would gladly give up all the progress our society has made in his name just to have her son back. I sincerely wish for him to rest in peace even while I reap the benefits of a world that was forced into change by his death. So maybe we should be torn. Maybe that is the only appropriate response to the legacy of Emmett Till. I just wish it was otherwise.