Dead End

By John W. Fountain
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 28, 2005


A midsummer's rain falls upon Emmett Till Road.

There is the swish of cars with glowing headlights on this usually bustling thoroughfare that seems to move this morning in the somber slow motion of a funeral procession.

Signs stare out from the windows of storefronts, offering wigs and "100 percent human hair." At night, neon-lighted signs illuminate the doorways above currency exchanges and corner stores that sell malt liquor. Down near where Emmett's road intersects with Martin Luther King's, a local undertaker has outfitted her funeral home with bulletproof glass.

They are signs of the times. And they appear across the South Side of this city that 14-year-old Emmett Till called home, until that night 50 years ago in Mississippi when he was kidnapped and then murdered, supposedly for whistling at a white woman. His disfigured face -- swollen like a pumpkin -- was viewed by tens of thousands who filed past his coffin in Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. His mother insisted that the world see what had been done to her boy. His death and her defiance galvanized the civil rights movement.

Today, there is an ongoing federal investigation into the 1955 lynching. Authorities recently unearthed his grave at a south suburban cemetery in search of evidence that might be used to finally bring someone to justice. The reopening of the case has kindled old memories and hurts and stirred conversation in his home town, though perhaps, for now, raising more questions than answers:

What is Emmett Till's legacy? Is it reflected in the pulse of daily life here? Or is it dead?

The answers might be found inside beauty salons and barbershops or restaurants and other haunts. Maybe they lie in other places -- blocks, or perhaps even miles away from the road named after him.

So on this anniversary summer of his death, we search for answers, on a quest for some sign, for evidence that his legacy, whatever it may be, still lives in the city where he was born.

There is something to the name that a street bears, to the symbolism and history embodied in the sign that gets planted in the heart of a community, from which the memories, voices and lessons of a people's past may resonate and also can remind them of their hope for the future.

Emmett Till Road was once just known as 71st Street. It runs about seven miles -- from Marquette Park -- where King was stoned and spat upon as he marched in 1966 -- past the corner of Green Street, where Leroy Richardson, 47, mans his makeshift snow-cone stand on hot afternoons, squirting 25-cent cups of shaved ice with a rainbow of sweet colored syrup. It stretches farther east to Perry Street, where a block away just months ago police found Steve Terrett, 17, in an alley -- fatally shot in the back, apparently for his $110 Air Jordan sneakers. Eventually it runs into Martin Luther King Drive, where several blocks south a shrine of R.I.P. cards, stuffed animals and an empty bottle of champagne marked the spot where three young men were shot execution-style on a summer night.

Along Emmett Till Road, barren lots and boarded brick apartment buildings abut manicured lawns. Crack and crime live next door to churches and charming brick homes with emerald lawns on tree-lined streets. There are symbols of how far black folks have come; there are also signs of how far there is yet to go.

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