The glass-topped casket that displayed lynching victim Emmett Till's disfigured body to the world and became a rallying point for the civil rights movement is headed to the Smithsonian Institution, Till's family announced Friday.
"Hopefully, when this casket, when it's on display at the Smithsonian, young boys and young girls from all over the world are going to see it and it's going to inspire them to fight for those who are too weak to fight for themselves," said Simeon Wright, Till's cousin.
At the South Side church where Mamie Till-Mobley insisted in 1955 on opening the casket that held the remains of her 14-year-old son — and allowed photographs to be taken and published — Wright said her message of what racism looks like still needs to be told.
"Fifty years from now someone will tell the story ... that they murdered him, threw him in the Tallahatchie River, would they believe it without the casket?" asked Wright. He was 12 and was with Till the night the black teenager was pulled from his bed in Mississippi and murdered for whistling at a white woman.
Lonnie Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the casket will be displayed, said he knows of no other casket of a specific American put on display this way at the Smithsonian. He called it a key artifact from the civil rights movement that helps tell the story of what is both one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history and a moment that helped change it.
"Part of the responsibility of a national museum is to help people to remember, and through this donation we will ensure that future generations will remember how the death of a child, a mother's courage, helped to transform America," Bunch said.
Friday's announcement at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ came on the 54th anniversary of the day Till was killed. It follows last month's discovery of Till's original casket — tattered, dented and rusty — in a garbage-strewn storage shed at a suburban cemetery where former workers are charged with digging up corpses and reselling burial plots.
The former workers are not accused of disturbing Till's grave. But while detectives were investigating the desecration of the historic black cemetery in Alsip, they found the casket that had been pulled from the ground when Till's body was exhumed in 2005. Till's body was later reburied in another casket, and the family was told the original one would be kept for a memorial.
Till's mutilated body had been found three days after he was snatched him from his bed. Two men were acquitted of the crime, but the next year they confessed to the killing in a Look magazine article.
Wright, who stayed in Mississippi for the trial and did not attend his cousin's Chicago funeral, said he felt helpless when he walked out of court the day his cousin's killers got away with murder.
But when he saw the casket last month at Burr Oak for the first time, he said he saw at once not only the "hatred of racism," but "I could see a mother's love." It was then, he said, that he decided that it belonged in a museum.
Bunch, the former director of the Chicago Historical Society, now called the Chicago History Museum, said he initially called the Till family to offer help after the casket was discovered. He realized that it needed to be preserved: "The casket itself was part of the story," he said.
The best place for it, he thought, was at the Smithsonian museum scheduled to open in 2015. Experts told him the casket could be salvaged, but it would take months of work. The casket will be moved to Washington, D.C., within the next couple of months.
How the casket will look when it is ultimately put on display — more like it is today or how it was in 1955 when thousands of mourners filed past it at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ — is yet to be decided.
Bunch also said he doesn't know when it will be displayed, what the exhibit will look like or what other artifacts and photographs will be included — only that it must not be done in a way that turns the casket into a mere curiosity.
"This should be an object that challenges us, it should be an object that makes us think (and) not just be seen as a spectacle," he said.