Up Front and Personal

A Visit to Emmett Till’s Coffin

by Effie Caldarola

Over 60 years ago, a young African American boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi after an encounter with a white woman in a country store on a dusty road on a hot, humid Southern day.

Till, from Chicago, was visiting relatives and had stopped to buy bubble gum.

Emmett Till’s transgression, by nearly all accounts, was to whistle at the good-looking clerk as she walked to her car. Days later, he was kidnapped, ruthlessly beaten and discarded in the Tallahatchie River. Those charged were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, but in 2018, acting on new information, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a new investigation.

The reverberations of one of America’s most infamous lynchings echo, and out of the thousands of blacks who were lynched by mobs, often by hanging, Emmett Till’s savage death stands out.

His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that his body be brought home to Chicago, and after seeing her son’s horribly mutilated face and body, she insisted on an open coffin that was subsequently viewed by thousands. It was a motivating factor in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

I’ve been the mother of a 14-year-old boy, and it’s hard to read about Emmett without thinking about my own son at that young, impressionable, hopeful age. It amazes me that a mother could be so courageous.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in Washington, in 2016. A year later, my husband and I made a pilgrimage to that city, where there’s always something new, or something old and sacred that beckons us to return.

The museum was first on our list and it did not disappoint. From the horrors of the slave ships to the ongoing struggle for civil rights, the museum traces America’s racial history.

But its Emmett Till Memorial is powerful. It’s on the floor that’s devoted to the Jim Crow era, that part of our history when segregation ruled much of the land, particularly in the South. Its cruelty was undergirded by a deep fear of sex between the races, a fear of race mixing, a fear of black men.

The memorial room has a quiet, contemplative feel. The centerpiece is an open coffin, the very coffin in which Till’s body was viewed by thousands and later buried for 50 years until the FBI exhumed it for yet an earlier investigation. Behind the soiled coffin, the wall is covered by the black and white photos of the original funeral service, the coffin, the crowds.

I knew I was on holy ground. But as I walked out of the room, I was struck by the tears of my fellow visitors. Everyone there was African American and they were crying, weeping inconsolably in some cases. Suddenly, I had the sense that I was an interloper, a mere spectator, a visitor to a funeral of someone to whom I had not been close, while all around me, his kin were deeply grieving. I realized later, that I, of course, was also a mourner. I can’t begin to understand the depth of the African American experience, but I can mourn for my country. I remembered that for all the beauty of the American idea, we have many shameful parts of our history that we need to confront with humility.

Even today, we find no way to accommodate brown children at our border who languish in dirty diapers, underfed, terrified and alone while politicians squabble. We Americans have a long way to go. We are all mourners in the room that holds Emmett Till’s coffin.

Effie Caldarola writes for the Catholic News Service column “For the Journey.”