By: Davis Houck
When Emmett Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River on Wednesday morning, August 31, plans were hastily made to have him buried here 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 here, Emmett, his cousins and two neighbors drove to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in Money. Moses had warned his son Maurice not to take the family car into “town,” but the teens disobeyed.
Emmett’s grave was being dug and funeral remarks were being prepared on the afternoon of the 31st when his great uncle, Crosby Smith, drove up with a deputy sheriff; Smith announced that he was calling off the burial as Emmett’s mom, Mamie Till, insisted that her son’s body be returned home to Chicago. The body was then moved to Greenwood, and later shipped to Tutwiler where it was embalmed; the body was so badly disfigured and bloated that embalming was the only method to try and preserve the rotting corpse. On Thursday evening, September 1, the body was loaded onto the Illinois Central in Winona; accompanying it were Smith, Elizabeth Wright and another Chicago cousin, Curtis Jones, who’d come to Money on August 27.
When the body arrived in Chicago the following day, September 2, Mamie Till insisted to funeral director A. A. Rayner that he 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 Emmett’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 photographers to take pictures of the corpse—notably Emmett’s mutilated face—and allowed several black newspapers and Jet Magazine to print the pictures. 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. Emmett’s 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 relations would have likely looked very different.
During the murder trial in September, Moses Wright hid here in the church cemetery and spent the night, fearful that whites were out to do him harm for testifying in the case. Black men simply did not point an accusing finger at a white man in open court. For that act of defiance Wright’s cotton went largely unharvested in 1955: threats of violence forced him to flee to Chicago. Wright also left behind his constant canine companion, Dallas, and his prized 1946 Ford.