"James Joyce is right about history being a nightmare," wrote African-American essayist James Baldwin. "But it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." So it was on June 1, when, 50 years after the brutal murder of the 14-year-old Emmett Till, U.S. authorities exhumed his body. His remaining family members gathered before dawn to watch as the FBI dug up the remains, in a bid to prosecute the handful of men who are still alive who may have been involved in his murder, and to help release the South from one of the most vicious episodes in the nation's racial history.
"Someone asked me if I was sad today," said Simeon Wright, a cousin of Emmett's late mother as he waited at the grave site on June 1. "I was sad in 1955. My heart was broken then. But now I'm not sad. We are almost at the end of it."
The murder of Emmett Till has been seared into the collective memory of most African-Americans. It was the subject of the first play by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, of a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes and of a song by Bob Dylan. It was also a huge galvanizing event for the civil rights movement. Just three months after the murder, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Ala., sparking the bus boycott that would kick-start the civil rights era, she said Till was on her mind.
Emmett left his home in Chicago to stay with relatives in Mississippi for his summer holidays. It was 1955 -- the year in which the first McDonald's opened, William Faulkner won a Pulitzer Prize and Bill Haley rocked around the clock. The Supreme Court had only recently outlawed segregation, and the world had yet to hear of a young preacher named Martin Luther King. The South was in an ugly mood.
Before Emmett left, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, warned him that things were different in the South. "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly," she said. But Emmett couldn't resist a dare and a joke. "He was known as a prankster, a risk-taker and a smart dresser who nevertheless did well in school," wrote Stephen Whitfield in "A Death in the Delta," his 1988 book about the murder.
So while he was down in the small town of Money, in the Delta region, he either said, "Bye, baby" or wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, in a grocery store. Three days later his body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River with a bullet in his skull, an eye gouged out and his forehead crushed on one side. A fisherman found his body with a 75-pound fan from a cotton gin tied to his neck with barbed wire. His corpse was so mangled that his uncle could identify it only by his initialed ring.
The local sheriff wanted to bury the body as soon as possible in Mississippi. But once Mobley heard what had happened, she insisted that it be returned for burial in Chicago. When she arrived to pick up her son at the train station, she ordered the casket open. In one of the most powerful scenes of the civil rights movement, Mobley ran her hands across his body, studying his hairline, teeth and ring, and then collapsed on the platform floor shouting, "Lord, take my soul," before being taken out in a wheelchair.
"Have you ever sent a loved one on a vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and waterlogged that someone needs to tell you this sickening sight is your son -- lynched?" she asked. The undertaker asked her if she wanted her son "fixed up." No, she replied, "you can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw."
Mobley's decision to leave the coffin open and delay the funeral by three days exposed to the rest of America and the world what was happening in Mississippi. Jet, a popular black magazine, published a picture of the body. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Chicago's South Side to see it, and more than 2,000 attended the funeral. "If you were indifferent, the Till murder at 14 made you interested," the black paper the Chicago Defender wrote shortly before Mobley's own funeral in January 2003. "If you were a routine onlooker, the murder turned you into a revolutionary; if you were moderate, the murder turned you militant."
It has long been clear who murdered Till. In 1955, Bryant's husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam were paid $4,000 for an interview with Look magazine in which they effectively admitted it. "I'm no bully," he told the magazine. "I never hurt a nigger in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice ... 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of them sending your kind down here to stir up trouble; I'm going to make an example of you, just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.'"
But that was two months after both men had been acquitted by a jury of their peers -- all white, Southern men. At the end of the five-day trial, their defense lawyer had made a simple pitch to the bigotry of the jurors. "Your fathers will turn over in their graves [if Milam and Bryant are found guilty] and I'm sure that every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men in the face of that [outside] pressure." It took the jury just 67 minutes to return a not-guilty verdict. One of the jurors said they would have returned earlier if they had not stopped for a soda.
But last year the Justice Department reopened the case, after filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who was making a documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till," found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and had not previously spoken in public. Among them was Wright, who shared a bed with Emmett the night before he was abducted. "The last time I saw him, some men were forcing him to get out of bed and get his clothes on, and that was it," said Wright, now 62. "I never dreamed we would finally get to this day." The new witnesses all say there were around 10 more people involved in the murder than was previously thought, five of whom are still alive today. At least one them is believed to be black.
The decision to reopen the case last year was greeted enthusiastically by civil rights campaigners and some politicians. "As a nation, we should never be afraid to acknowledge our mistakes -- however difficult -- so that we can learn from them," said New York Sen. Charles Schumer on the day of the announcement. "The truth, as they say, will set you free. It's no less true in the case of Emmett Till from 50 years ago than it is today."
But the decision to exhume the body initially divided Emmett's remaining family. "I personally don't see the point at this time of digging his body up," Bertha Thomas, a distant cousin and president of the Emmett Till Foundation, told the New York Times. "They don't need his body or remains in order to pursue [the perpetrators] if they have solid proof that other people were involved." Before she died, Mobley had told loved ones that she did not want her son to be exhumed; she simply wanted the state of Mississippi to apologize.
But other family members said that without the exhumation it would not be possible to secure a prosecution. With no autopsy performed when he died, the original jury could not even be sure that the body in question was Emmett's, despite Mobley's positive identification during the trial. "Most reasonable people fully believe that it is Emmett Till in the grave," Robert Garrity, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau's office in Jackson, Miss., told USA Today. "I believe it is Emmett Till. But we know from the '55 trial that the defense raised the specter that the state had not ever proved that Emmett Till was dead, much less that the body was indeed Till."
The autopsy, says Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, will be "Emmett's first and last chance to speak for himself ... He'll be able to tell us that it is him, and as much as possible, whether there is any evidence or support for others being involved."
This is only one of a rash of civil-rights-era cases that have recently been reopened decades after the crimes were committed. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., 25 cases have been reexamined or are under reexamination, which have led to 26 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and a mistrial. On June 13, Edgar Ray Killen will go on trial for the murder of three young civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss. -- the case that formed the basis for the movie "Mississippi Burning."
The FBI also recently found what is believed to be the only existing transcript of the 1955 Till trial. "It was in pretty poor shape," said Garrity, "so we had to go through it line by line, word by word, and retype it." Leesha Faulkner, a reporter who covers courts for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, says it is common for such records to have gone missing in Mississippi. "If something didn't suit somebody, they took it home and put it in their attic and never said anything about it."
The FBI plans to use the transcript to seek out discrepancies between witness statements then and now. But just as new evidence trickles in, so older evidence continues to fade, bringing a sense of urgency to a case that until recently was relegated to the past. "The witnesses and potential defendants are getting much older," says Sen. Schumer. "We cannot afford to wait."