The legacy of the lynching of thousands of black people in America was recalled when the death 60 years ago in Mississippi of just one, Emmett Till, was commemorated on Friday at his gravesite in a suburban Chicago cemetery.
Relatives and civil rights activists gathered in Burr Oak Cemetery, south of Chicago, to listen to speeches and songs, and comfort one another with hugs. A large wreath of white flowers encircled a black and white portrait of Till’s smiling face.
Congressman Bobby Rush recalled his own mother explaining to him as an eight-year-old the “horrors” of Till’s death. He said that memory still inspires him.
“We stand here and bear witness to the fact that the truths around Emmett Till’s murder are still truths that America refuses to recognize,” he said.
The 14-year-old Till was visiting relatives in the cotton country of the Mississippi Delta on 24 August 1955 when witnesses said he violated the Jim Crow social code by whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working behind the counter of a store in the tiny town of Money.
On 28 August he was kidnapped from his uncle’s home a few miles away. On 31 August his body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, with a bullet hole in his head and severe cuts on his face. Barbed wire was wrapped around his neck and he was weighted down with a cotton gin fan.
Among those attending the ceremony was Till’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, who as a 16-year-old witnessed three white men drag Till from the house.
“I thought we would all die,” he said. “I’ve never been that afraid before in my life. And at 16, I was not trying to die … so you relive that and wonder what could you have done.”
The grave marker of Emmett Till at the Burr Oak Cemetery where the 60th anniversary of his murder has been commemorated. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The grave marker of Emmett Till at the Burr Oak Cemetery where the 60th anniversary of his murder has been commemorated. Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
The wreath-laying ceremony followed a procession from Robert Temple Church of God in Christ, where Till’s funeral took place.
Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago, and Jet magazine published photos of his corpse. The brutality sparked outrage that gave urgency to the civil rights movement.
“The casket was right there,” Parker recalled. “All I can remember is being numb, saying this is not Emmett.”
Friday’s observance marked the start of a weekend of events aimed at remembering Till’s death and what it means today.
Among those scheduled to participate in a Till memorial dinner are Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; and Michael Brown Sr, the father of Michael Brown, whose shooting in 2014 led to protests over police action in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Black lives matter,” Rush said. “Black lives mattered when Emmett was killed. Black lives mattered when [Chicago Black Panther leaders] Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed. Black lives matter even today.”
Movie screenings and other memorial events will be held on Thursday through Sunday in Mississippi.