Emmett Till’s Casket Heads to Washington

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Emmett Till at Christmas 1954 taken by Mamie Till Bradley

It’s been 62 years since the brutal murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, the boy with the smiling face who loved to wear a grown man’s hat.

Pulled from the bed of a relative’s cabin, Till’s corpse was later found in the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck and a bullet hole through his head. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was only able to identify him by the shape of his ears and the engraved ring he wore belonging to his father.

The Murder of a Teenager

Till was murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. He was so severely beaten that his brain needed to be removed before his burial. His mother requested he be buried in a glass-topped casket in order for the public to see what had been done to him. Over 50,000 people witnessed the teenager’s horribly disfigured body at his memorial service.

Till’s original casket rested silently in Chicago’s Burr Oak Cemetery until 2005, when it was exhumed by the FBI to have his body autopsied for the first time in order to find possible accomplices in his murder. His body was then transferred to another casket and reburied at Burr Oak, with the original casket still held at the cemetery. Till’s relatives had hoped to donate the original casket to a black history museum.

Till’s Family Continues to Suffer

Emmett Till’s family suffered more heartache this past summer when employees of Burr Oak Cemetery were accused of digging up the graves of approximately 300 people and selling their plots. Police discovered Till’s original casket rusting in a shed on the cemetery’s property as the grave-selling scandal unfolded.

Finding Peace in Washington

The original glass-topped casket of Emmett Till was donated by his family to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Lonnie G. Bunch, III, the museum’s director and former president of the Chicago History Museum, told the Washington Post, “The family wanted to preserve it in a respectful way.” The casket will be evaluated by conservation experts and prepared for display at the museum’s opening in 2015.

It hasn’t yet been decided how the casket will be displayed, but Bunch is expecting people to find it upsetting. He is hoping that people will feel a complexity of emotions, just as he did.

Getting Away With Murder

The men arrested for the kidnap and murder of Emmett Till were the husband of the white woman Till was accused of whistling at, and his half-brother. They were acquitted by an all-white jury but later admitted to the crime in an article for Look magazine.