Till was the 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was tortured and then killed in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to family members in Mississippi. An all-white jury acquitted two white men, including the woman’s husband, of Till’s killing.
The case thrust civil rights issues to the forefront of the national spotlight when Till’s mother insisted on an open-coffin funeral service that allowed mourners, and the media, to see the condition of his body.
“It was a heinous murder,” Airickca Gordon-Taylor, Till’s cousin, told the Associated Press on Thursday. “He was brutally beaten and tortured, and he was shot, wrapped in barbed wire and tossed in the Tallahatchie River. The images that we’re fortunate to have (of his open casket) that Jet (magazine) published, they demonstrate the ugliness of racism. So to compare a woman’s anatomy — the gateway of life — to the ugly face of death, it just destroyed me. And then I had to call the elders in my family and explain to them before they heard it from some other source.”
Bob Dylan wrote and recorded “The Death of Emmett Till” in 1962, which included the verse:
“I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
“The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs.
“For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
“While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.”
Americana singer and songwriter Emmylou Harris included her own take on the story in “My Name Is Emmett Till” on her 2011 “Hard Bargain” album, a song written from the perspective of the murdered teenager:
“Oh, I had rather lived
“Till I was too old to die young
“Not even a soul I left behind
“All that might have come
“Summer clouds above my head
“The grass beneath my feet
“The warmth of a good woman
“Her kisses soft and sweet”