Amidsummer'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.
On a recent gray morn, July 25, the day of Till's birth, there are few signs of remembrance. There are no apparent memorial services. No placards, handbills or T-shirts bearing his picture. No joining of hands, no singing of songs. Down on Emmett Till's road, there are no solemn public moments for reflection about the boy who today would have been 64 and perhaps just a little grayer, balder, or rounder, like the boys he used to play with around here -- boys who got to grow up to become men.
On the first day of June, gravediggers unearthed the vault containing Emmett's body, as the undertaker and a few of Till's relatives stood nearby. A helicopter hovered overhead as cameramen with long lenses leaned over the fence and a swarm of reporters stood at the front gate of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, Ill. -- blocked by police and FBI. Pamela C. Rayner, the undertaker, had been at the cemetery since 3:30 a.m.
It was her grandfather, Ahmed A. Rayner Sr., who prepared Emmett's body for services after it was pulled from the Tallahatchie River -- with a cotton-gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. Tortured and bruised, with most of his teeth missing, his remains were returned in a sealed box on a train to Chicago.
Ahmed Rayner is dead and the family-owned funeral home is run by his granddaughter. A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home, which once sat at 41st and Cottage Grove -- though now farther south -- still lies in the shadow of Emmett Till a half-century later.
Pamela Rayner, 47, who once dreamed of becoming a schoolteacher, wasn't even born when Till was killed, but recalls the stark memories her grandfather shared years later.
"I remember him saying that he had to do something because the way that he was brought up here, he looked so bad that it would probably scare most of the people," says Rayner. There was the eye that her grandfather had to put back into Till's head and the fixing of his swollen tongue that hung out of his mouth -- the stitching and patchwork to make the boy presentable in a glass-covered casket.
Over the years, talk of Emmett Till at Rayner's has never completely dissipated, kept alive by historians, writers and documentary makers, who from time to time, inquire about the case. Then this year the FBI came a-calling.
Two men -- Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman Till supposedly whistled at, and J.W. Milam -- had been charged with Till's murder and acquitted by an all-white jury in 1955, though they later admitted to killing him in an interview to Look magazine. But at least one recent documentary suggesting others might have been involved prompted the Justice Department to reopen the case, and the FBI to ask Rayner to exhume his body.
But like others here, Rayner is ambivalent about the renewed press for justice after all this time.
"What difference does it make now?" she asks during an interview inside her mortuary. "The people that are living, they don't even know what happened -- those that are growing up, unless their grandparents mention it to them. If you ask many young people who Emmett Till is, they think it's a football player."
Hours after the digging began, with the world watching, a white flatbed truck carrying the blue tarp-draped vault rolled out of the cemetery, escorted by police and FBI -- Emmett Till was on his way to the coroner 50 years after his murder.
The colorful sign outside reads T.J.'s Designs. Inside, a half-dozen stylists perm, curl and wash the dos of clients, the smoke of a hot curling iron or a mist of hairspray drifting in the air as the Commodores' "Nightshift" spills from a radio. Sunlight splashes through the windows of the tidy shop with white walls and hanging plants.
The brown memorial street sign that used to hang on the corner, above the green-and-white Martin Luther King Drive signs, disappeared at least a year ago. No one here seems to know exactly when or how or why they were removed or who took them.
Upon hearing the talk of Emmett Till, a thin, middle-aged man disappears behind a closet door. Moments later, he reemerges with a recent Chicago Defender, its front page covered with the reprinted funeral photo of Emmetts battered and swollen face.
"It's sad how they did my black brother," says Henry Jasper, 46, clutching the newspaper. "It's something I've got to think about for the rest of my life."
But the renewed push for justice, he says: "It's too late."
A few doors down, at Jackie's Place, aromas of short ribs and fried catfish saturate the corner cafe as the Rev. J. W. Singleton, 80, recalls the mood of the black community in Chicago in 1955 as news of the Till murder spread. People back then, he says, were "hysterical" and most craved justice.
Singleton, like others, wonders if that day will ever come.
"It should have been before now and I don't think they are going to rightly divide that case," says Singleton, pastor of the Clear Rock Baptist Church, his words drifting above the chatter.
"They really did take too long," adds Singleton's friend, Wilford R. Gowans, 69, a teenager living in Texas in 1955.
Marcia Sherrer, who sits nearby, wonders if Till's legacy will survive.
"When Emmett lost his voice, his mother took that on. Well, Emmett's mother is not here," Sherrer says. "So it's our responsibility to continue to speak for Emmett and to speak for his mother."
Mamie Till Mobley was 81 when she died Jan. 6, 2003. Today she lies in a crypt at Burr Oak Cemetery, not far from her son's grave.
Miles away, on a quiet block of manicured lawns and shrubs, a sign that once proclaimed the 8400 block of South Wabash to be the home of Mobley is missing.
A young man who answers the door at the brick ranch style house where she lived until she died says that none of Mother Mobley's family lives here anymore. On this street -- 13 blocks south of Emmett Till Road -- there are no landmarks, no memorials, nothing to remember this mother of the civil rights movement.
Sitting on her porch in a white plastic chair, Joyce Clark, 78, remembers Mother Mobley as a good neighbor -- one who was active in the community, a pillar, and humble.
"Now, more and more, I am learning more about her and I'm thinking . . . I should have spent more time with her because she was truly a freedom fighter," says Clark, a retired school administrator.
"I have seen progress and then I have seen regress. But I do know we must continue to fight."
Miles away from Emmett Till Road, a collection of photographs and postcards at the Chicago Historical Society recounts the history of lynching in America in an exhibit called, "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America."
Here, a smiling portrait of Emmett and his mother greets visitors who amble through. Some shake their heads, almost staggering, when they see the images of men charred and maimed, the "strange fruit" dangling from the end of ropes. Most are solemn, whispering, as they follow the walls of pictures that end with the lynching of Emmett Till.
Near the guest books at the end of the exhibit are stacks of 4-by-4-inch white cards inscribed with the name of lynching victims. The cards are mementos, with a pledge for visitors to take:
I will remember
Emmett Louis Till
Lynched August 28, 1955
On the back of the card is a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. It reads: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
'It Was Pure Terror'
The clippers at Esquire barbershop in southwest suburban Summit, Ill., buzz like a swarm of bees. For the boys who have now grown into men, memories of a thousand yesterdays still linger fresh like lilac barber's tonic.
Wheeler Parker is Bobo's cousin. That's what they called Emmett. As boys, they chased rabbits and squirrels, slid down hills and laughed and joked until the sun set here. But they are all grown now, and Emmett is gone, forever frozen in time at 14.
A part-time barber and full-time pastor, Parker smooths the necks of men with a straightedge on weekdays, and on Sundays steers the men, women and children who attend his Argo Temple Church of God in Christ down the straight and narrow. His hair over 66 years has turned salt and pepper, but the details of early that morning before the sun rose on Aug. 28, 1955, have never faded. A week earlier, Parker had ridden with his cousin Bobo on the Illinois Central to Money, Miss., to visit relatives.
He remembers coming home that night, his 16-year-old uncle was driving and ran over a dog. Emmett was so upset about it that he cried.
Parker was lying in another bedroom when they took Emmett away.
"They came to my room first, looking for him," Parker recalls. "They told my grandfather they were looking for a fat boy from Chicago. My grandfather did not know which room he was in. So they made their rounds through the house.
"Of course, the night they came to take him, they were kind of giving him a hard time because he wasn't saying 'yes, sir,' and 'no, sir.' When they took him away, it was pure terror," Parker recalls.
His body was recovered three days later, on Aug. 31, 1955. It was returned to Chicago in a sealed casket on the Illinois Central train he had taken to Mississippi almost two weeks earlier.
The family has renewed hope that justice finally may be served. "We need to know that positively that is him and we need to know how he was killed," Parker says. "There was never an autopsy done."
Parker says they hold no hatred or grudges, "no animosity or ill will toward anyone. . . . But if someone is due something, we feel like they should get what is coming to them," he explains.
"I never did have any sorrow or pain because I never accepted it. I don't know if I was in a state of shock," Parker says. "I never accepted that that was him. I always said that I will see him again."
Spitting Into the Casket
At Rayner funeral home, the undertaker is smiling, but weary. The toll of violence is good for business, but bad for the soul. Nowadays, it gets to Pamela Rayner; the gang killings, the random shootings, but especially the funerals for the abused 8- and 9-year-olds, the services for boys like Terrett, murdered for his Air Jordan sneakers. Rayner has grown tired of seeing people spit into the caskets of young men they considered bitter rivals in life as they walk by to view the body, she is weary of the fighting that sometimes erupts at funerals, and she is still edgy about the threat that a rival gang may spray her funeral home with gunfire as the family of a deceased rival walks out after services.
It happened three years ago.
"As soon as they came out of the funeral, they just let loose," Rayner says.
She has since installed bulletproof glass -- a sign of the times.
Rayner admits that she "hates funerals."
Though federal and Mississippi state law enforcement officials declined to discuss the investigation, Rayner and Parker say they were told that Emmett's body was in better shape than it was when he was buried, that the swelling had gone down, and that everything was still intact.
There is hope that the results will provide the closing chapter of the Emmett Till story.
On her old block, the sign that bears Mamie Till Mobley's name was put back in place earlier this month. It had been knocked over by a motorist and a neighbor took it in for repairs.
Across South Side neighborhoods, some point to pockets of gentrification and the survival of black-owned businesses like T.J.'s as sprouting symbols of hope. There is a vigil -- organized by a local church and dubbed as "Hands Across Emmett Till Road" -- planned for today. And on one summer afternoon, there is evidence that the legacy of Emmett Till is not completely lost to a younger generation.
On the court, the basketball pounds against the pavement, sneakers squeak, and young men talk trash. Of seven black teenage boys asked whether they know who Emmett Till was, most shake their heads, turn to one another and ask, "Who is that?" Or they shrug.
A few moments later, one of the boys approaches. His name is Devin Davis, he says. He is 15 and a sophomore, and he says he knows. Then the words and history spill from his mouth like water from an open faucet.
"I know he was killed over racism because him and a couple of his other guys were in a store, and they claimed he whistled at a white lady. She told her husband . . . and then they came after him. And I know that they put him in the back of a truck and beat him . . . And I know that his mama put his body on display so that everybody could see the cruelty, how harsh racism is."
Devin explains that he learned about Emmett Till from a documentary shown at school in the eighth grade. And he says that he wants to grow up to be a law enforcement officer because he doesn't like the state of the streets that he has grown up in.
"I've been robbed before," Devin says. "And I know how it feels. . . . When it comes down to it, everybody is just dying for no reason. Around here, it's like you're living to die, like you're just waiting on it. . . . Man, it's crazy out here."