CHICAGO — When his mother put the battered body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the ground more than 50 years ago, it was supposed to be the end of a sad saga for the boy whose murder became a rallying point for the civil-rights movement.
But even in death, Till cannot rest. Four years after his body was exhumed as part of an investigation, his original glass-topped casket has been found in a rusty shed at a suburban cemetery where workers are accused of digging up and dumping hundreds of bodies in a scheme to resell the burial plots.
The casket, which was seen by mourners around the world in 1955, was surrounded by garbage and old headstones. When authorities opened it, a family of possums scampered out.
"There is no rest for Emmett," Ollie Gordon, a cousin, said Monday. "It was turmoil when they exhumed his body, and now we are put in turmoil because we might have to exhume again."
Till's current gravesite does not appear to be among those disturbed at Burr Oak Cemetery, the historic black burial ground south of Chicago where authorities have charged a manager and three gravediggers with the gruesome reburial scheme. The manager is also suspected of pocketing donations she elicited for a Till memorial museum, though she has not been charged in connection with those allegations.
"Emmett Till is being treated with the same disrespect in death as he was treated in life," said Jonathan Fine, executive director of the group Preservation Chicago.
Kidnapped, killed after whistling at woman
In August 1955, Till traveled from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives. After he whistled at a white woman outside a market, the woman's husband and another man snatched him from his bed. His body was found in a river three days later, a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His nose was crushed, and his left eye was missing, as were most of his teeth.
The two men were acquitted, but the next year they confessed to the killing in a Look magazine article.
Till's body was exhumed in 2005 as part of a new investigation into his death, as federal authorities sought to dispel long-standing rumors that the body was not Till's.
Tests confirmed the body was that of Till, and the case was closed after a Mississippi grand jury decided not to return an indictment against any other possible participants in his killing.
Till was reburied in another casket, as is customary after exhumations, and the original glass-topped coffin was to be saved for a memorial.
Authorities investigating the grave desecration found Till's first casket beneath a dirty tarp in a dark corner of a cemetery shed.
A sheriff's spokesman said the casket has been moved to a secure room at a suburban sheriff's facility. He expects it will eventually be released to the Till family.
'A formative moment'
Till's mother chose the original casket so mourners could see her son's ghastly injuries. Photographs of Till's body in the coffin published in Jet Magazine became powerful images of the civil-rights movement.
"The young people who later led the civil rights movement were roughly Emmett's age, (and) all of them say that was a formative moment for them, that someone their own age was being lynched for virtually nothing," said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a three-volume biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
One person could not get the story out of her head was a young seamstress named Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala.
"I once asked Mrs. Parks, 'Why didn't you move to the back of the bus?'" the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week, standing with members of Till's family at the cemetery. "She said, 'I thought about Emmett Till and I couldn't go back.'"
Jackson said he was stunned by the treatment of the casket.
"I think that the thieves in this situation have no regard for history of humanity," he said.
Such talk makes the treatment of the casket that much harder to explain, Fine said.
"That casket is as much a part of the civil-rights movement as the bus that Rosa Parks was riding on," he said. The bus is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan.
'Maybe this will lead to something good'
Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., whose work led to criminal convictions of some Ku Klux Klansmen, said Till and other civil rights-era figures tend to be overshadowed by King and a few others whose history has been better preserved.
"These things are forgotten, so they get tucked into a shack, literally," Mitchell said.
Gordon, Till's cousin, said the family has not decided whether to exhume the body again, or whether Till, his mother, stepfather and other relatives will be moved to another cemetery.
She hopes his original casket can be restored and possibly placed in a museum, as had been planned.
Mitchell feels much the same way.
"Maybe this will lead to something good, to really do something now, really build a mausoleum, put this casket where it belongs," he said. "There is a lot of history in that, a lot of important history."
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