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When Emmett Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River on Wednesday morning, August 31, plans were hastily made to have him buried in the small cemetery at the East Money Church of God in Christ—a humble black church that Moses Wright once pastored. One week earlier, and while Wright and his wife Elizabeth attended Wednesday services, Till, his cousins, and two neighbors drove nearly three miles to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in Money, where Till had his fateful encounter with Carolyn Bryant.
After Till’s body was found, local law enforcement was anxious to bury the body and, they hoped, the story. Within hours of the body’s retrieval, a grave was dug at the East Money church. Till’s great uncle Crosby Smith interrupted the digging. He arrived with a deputy sheriff and announced that Till’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted that her son’s body be returned home to Chicago.
When the body arrived in Chicago the following day, September 2, Mamie Till demanded that funeral director A. A. Rayner open the casket; she wanted to see her son. Rayner eventually opened the casket and Mamie Till began the torturous process of identifying her only child. So badly disfigured was the body that she had to rely on Till’s hair, teeth, and ears to make a positive identification. What she did next changed the course of race relations in the country: she invited black photographer David Jackson to take pictures of the corpse—notably the boy’s mutilated face—and allowed several black newspapers and Jet Magazine to print them. As she would say for the rest of her life, “Let the world see what I’ve seen. . . . The whole nation had to bear witness to this.”
Emmett Till had recently turned 14 years old when he became a household name in 1955. A generation of young black boys and girls saw the grisly photographs in the pages of Jet and elsewhere. This was the generation who would change Mississippi forever through organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality; activists would often trace the origins of their activism to seeing the corpse of Emmett Till. Had his body been quietly interred in this humble plot off of Darfield Road, the history of race in America would have looked very different.
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