Fifty-six years ago today, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American visiting Mississippi from Chicago was kidnapped. He was brutally murdered, and the two men were acquitted. In 2009, after a cemetery scandal (in the Chicago area) resulted in finding Till’s casket rotting, Till’s family decided to donate his original, glass-topped casket to the Smithsonian. I spoke with Till’s cousin Simeon Wright who was with him the night he was taken. You can read the interview here.
Hearing Wright recount the events that led up to his murder was a chill-inducing experience even if it was a phone interview. One of the things that stuck with me from our conversation was Wright’s theory that if the men had been convicted, Till’s story would have been forgotten:
I believe sincerely that if they had convicted those men 54 years ago that Emmett’s story wouldn’t have been in the headlines. We’d have forgotten about it by now.
Till’s glass-topped casket was designed especially for the family on his mother’s insistence.
She said it herself, she wanted to world to see what those men had done to her son because no one would have believed it if they didn’t see the picture or didn’t see the casket. No one would have believed it. And when they saw what happened, this motivated a lot of people that were standing, what we call “on the fence,” against racism. It encouraged them to get in the fight and do something about it. That’s why many say that that was the beginning of the civil rights era.