Copyright The New York Times
Published: June 2, 2005
CHICAGO, June 1 – Fifty years after Emmett Till’s swollen, battered body was pulled from the muck of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi, it was removed from the ground once more on Wednesday, carried away from a quiet cemetery in south suburban Chicago for an autopsy at last.
Three relatives of Emmett, the 14-year-old black Chicagoan whose killing helped galvanize the civil rights movement, gathered before dawn at the Burr Oak Cemetery in the town of Alsip, listened to a preacher say a prayer and stood by as a backhoe dug into the earth. Before noon, a concrete vault that contained the metal coffin bearing the remains was driven off on a flatbed truck, surrounded by squad cars, to the office of the Cook County medical examiner.
Federal authorities ordered the exhumation as part of their new investigation into Emmett’s kidnapping and death, one of more than 20 cases of killings in the Jim Crow South that have been reopened in recent years. The new inquiries have been prompted by a new generation of prosecutors and investigators, by the work of historians and filmmakers, by witnesses who have unexpectedly come forward and, simply, by the interest that has grown with each new investigation.
The Till inquiry is aimed at determining who might have been involved in Emmett’s killing other than the two men who were acquitted of it by an all-white jury but who later told Look magazine that they were responsible. Both are now dead.
The authorities said Wednesday that the autopsy would confirm, once and for all, the identity of the body in Emmett’s grave and, they hope, determine the cause of his death and identify any remaining evidence that might link him to his killers. Although he was beaten beyond recognition – and is believed to have been shot – there is little question that the body is his. Still, an autopsy was never done, for reasons that have since grown obscure.
“Someone asked me if I was sad today,” said Simeon Wright, a first cousin of Emmett’s mother who waited at the grave site on Wednesday. “I was sad in 1955. My heart was broken then.”
“But now I’m not sad,” Mr. Wright said, adding, “We are almost at the end of it.”
Mr. Wright, now 62, was sharing a room with Emmett on Aug. 28, 1955, the night when, accused of whistling at a white woman, he was taken from a relative’s Mississippi home, where they were staying.
“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,” Mr. Wright said. “I never dreamed we would finally get to this day.”
With the passing of time, the Till case had become mostly just a memory to many, one chapter of a fading struggle. Then, last year, after two filmmakers made separate documentaries on the case, the Justice Department announced that it was opening a new investigation. Prosecutors said information uncovered in the making of the documentaries had disclosed that people in addition to the two acquitted defendants, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, might also have been involved.
On Wednesday, in a telephone interview from New York, Keith Beauchamp, one of the filmmakers, said of the exhumation: “This was a day that we hoped for. This is something that I prayed for for a long period of time.”
At the cemetery in Alsip, the mood was tense and somber on Wednesday morning. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shrouded the burial site in a white tent so that outsiders could not watch. Reporters were held at the cemetery gates. No one spoke during the digging, said Arthur Everett of the bureau’s Chicago office.
Mr. Everett said he was uncertain how long the medical examiner’s investigation would take.
At the trial of Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam, half a century ago, their lawyers suggested that the body recovered from the river might not even have been Emmett’s and that he might be alive somewhere. On Wednesday, Frank Bochte, an F.B.I. spokesman, said: “The first and foremost thing we’re trying to do is to put to rest any theories that the body inside there is not Emmett Till. We would like to settle that issue once and for all.”
Beyond that, the authorities said they were uncertain precisely how much they would be able to learn about the killers and the cause of death from remains so old.
Once the examination is complete, the remains will be returned to Emmett’s family, to bury again.
In recent weeks, the question of exhumation had become a matter of debate within the family. At least one member of the extended family, Bertha Thomas, speaking in early May, publicly expressed concern about any need for it.
On Wednesday, though, Emmett’s relatives said they were united.
“The family talked about it,” said Crosby Smith Jr., one of the three relatives who stood by for more than three hours at the cemetery. “The family’s in agreement.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had been alongside Ms. Thomas as she expressed her doubts, said Wednesday that he supported the family’s agreement on the question but that he wondered why the authorities had taken so long to investigate properly.
“In pursuing this 50 years later, it just leaves you with questions,” Mr. Jackson said. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”