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Hours after Till’s body was discovered protruding from the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi authorities began to bury the body—and the story—in a rural cemetery at a rural church deep in the Mississippi Delta. Had Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley not intervened and reclaimed her son’s body, Till’s lynching may have been recorded in the history books alongside the likes of George Lee and Lamar Smith. Like Till, Lee and Smith were lynched in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. Unlike Till, their stories have been largely forgotten. The difference in their respective fates can be traced to Mamie Till-Mobley's demand that the "world see" what happened to her son. It was at Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ that the world saw. As Yvette Johnson wrote in the Song and the Silence, Mamie Till-Mobley changed the world with the open-casket funeral.
Upon arriving back in Chicago on the morning of September 2, 1955, the first stop for Till’s body was the A. A. Rayner Funeral home which, in 1955, was located at the corner of 41st and Cottage Grove. The casket arrived locked, sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, and accompanied by orders that the casket was not to be opened. If Mississippi authorities could not bury the body in a nameless cotton field, they hoped their seal would keep Till’s story under wraps. It did not work.
Till-Mobley disregarded the order and insisted that the casket be opened. It was at A. A. Rayner Funeral Home that she uttered the famous phrase: “Let the world see what they did to my boy.” Following Mamie's wishes, Rayner placed the body in the front room of their facility in a glass-topped casket. Over the next two days, as many as fifty thousand people would visit the funeral home to pay their respects.
Among the throngs at the funeral home was the photographer David Jackson. Jackson was a photographer for Johnson Publications, and Till-Mobley allowed him to be on the podium at the twelfth street station when Till’s body arrived. He then accompanied the body to Rayner and, when Till-Mobley opened the casket, he took a picture and published it in Johnson Publication’s leading outlets: Jet and the Chicago Defender. In a way that words could never do, Jackson’s photograph captured the sheer violence visited on the body—and especially the face—of Emmett Till. Although the brutality of the picture is difficult to describe, the words of John Edgar Wideman come close. He described a face “crushed, chewed, [and] mutilated.” A face “with all the boy, all the human being battered out of it.” Jackson’s photograph transformed the Till murder from one more 1955 Mississippi lynching into the unforgettable spark of the civil rights movement. Delta activist Amzie Moore may have put it best, claiming that the photograph made Till’s murder “the best advertised lynching I had ever heard.”
For black Chicago, however, the Jackson photograph was only the beginning. On Sunday, September 4th, the body was moved to the Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ—the home congregation of Mamie Till and her mother Alma. The two-thousand seat auditorium was filled to capacity for the funeral, and several thousand more listened to the 90-minute service on loudspeakers set up outside the church. The sermon was given by Bishop Louis Ford, who used the funeral to call on President Eisenhower to “go into the Southern states and tell the people there . . . that unless the Negro gets full freedom in America, it is impossible for us to be leaders in the rest of the world.” He closed the sermon by announcing that the burial would be delayed until Tuesday and the body would lay in state for the next two days.
The following 48 hours saw an estimated one-hundred thousand mourners file past the body.
In 1991, Robert’s Temple Church of God in Christ underwent a major renovation. The iconic cross-shaped marquis was removed, a tan brick facade was installed over the top of the original storefront, an angular roofline hid the original curved profile, a drop-ceiling was installed, and the balcony was removed.
On March 29, 2006, Robert’s Temple was designated as a Chicago Landmark. The small plaque on the west side of the building is the only visible acknowledgement of the church’s key role in the Till story.
|Robert's Temple Church of God in Christ, Chicago Landmark Designation Report||pdf / 1.76 MB||Download|