People line up to file past the open, butternut-brown casket at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum, silently paying tribute. Men remove their hats, mothers wipe at tears as Mahalia Jackson’s voice fills the room.
“I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.”
Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, in a small town in Mississippi. But the teenager’s funeral unfolds every day in the nation’s capital.
America never properly buried Emmett. And we learned Thursday that the Justice Department has officially reopened the investigation into his murder.
The teen-size casket inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture re-creates the famous scene that shocked our country and helped jump-start the civil rights movement.
Emmett was 14 when he left Chicago to visit relatives in Mississippi during the hot August of 1955. The story went that he had whistled at a white woman in a family grocery store. And for that, her kin hunted him down, kidnapped and lynched him before binding his body to a 75-pound cotton gin fan with barbed wire and throwing him into the Tallahatchie River.
When his body was found and his mother saw his profoundly mangled face, she insisted that his casket be open.
Mamie Till Mobley said she “put that body on display for five days and people could walk by and see what racism had really generated.” The nation — and the world — saw those photos, saw the truth.
Until then, many people didn’t really understand what happened to lynching victims. They disappeared. They were forgotten, hidden. White America acted as though lynching never happened.
But the photo of Emmett’s friendly, open face, which was hung next to the gruesome mess in the casket, put it in gut-wrenching perspective.
The men arrested in Emmett’s killing — Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman Emmett allegedly flirted with; and J.W. Milam, Bryant’s half brother — walked free, thanks to the verdict of an all-white jury.
They are dead now. But the woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, is still alive and confessed to Duke University historian Timothy Tyson that she lied when she told a jury that Emmett flirted with her and grabbed her.
“That part’s not true,” Bryant told Tyson, who recounted the interview in his 2017 book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.” “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.
One African American woman from Richmond just shook her head at the way Emmett died and the terrible legacy of racism.
“All those years, young black men were told to never, ever whistle at a white woman. Don’t even look at one,” she told me Thursday morning.
“You just knew never to do that growing up,” said Lonnie Crane, 58, who was visiting the museum from Minneapolis.
Crane wasn’t sure that reopening the investigation was a good idea. “We have so many problems now, so much to work out. Maybe we should move ahead, look to the future,” he said.
The future, moving past the casket in Adidas shoes, is still reckoning with the past.
“They could do that back then? Kill him just for flirting?” one black teen whispered to his mom.
“Uh-huh,” she said. “But not anymore.”
Lynchings may be a thing of the past, but our racism remains just as poisonous as ever.
What about driving while black?
Shopping while black?
Sitting in Starbucks while black?
Napping while black?
That’s this boy’s life. Today.
Young Emmett was killed simply for living while black.
“They need to go back and clear his name,” said Sarah Brown, 74, who was visiting the museum from Atlanta. “It’s been long enough.”
“I’m always drawn to the phrase, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ ” said Lonnie Bunch, the director of the African American Museum. And that’s part of what makes the exhibit so powerful and why Bunch decided to include Emmett’s casket in the museum.
“My argument is, it’s not as though this is disconnected from where we are today,” Bunch said.
Emmett Till’s murder summoned outrage and the will to move toward change, to acknowledge that a dead boy reflected generations of racism.
“Now? People see those dead bodies. And where’s the outrage?” said Chu Solomon, 19, who is a college student in Woodbridge, Va., and saw the parallels right away.
When Emmett’s mom made that brave decision to show the world what happened to her son, she was the 1955 version of the police brutality we see captured on video over and over again today.
Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Stephon Clark, the list goes on and on.
Might as well say, Emmett Till, Emmett Till, Emmett Till.
“People — all people — need to go in there and look at that casket and say to themselves, ‘What is America?’ ” said a retired D.C. schoolteacher who brought some kids to the casket on Thursday morning. “Is America going back?”
And do we have it in us to be outraged again?
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