When Emmett Till’s body arrived at the Illinois Central train station in Chicago on 2 September 1955, the instructions from the authorities in Mississippi were clear: the casket containing the young boy must be buried unopened, intact and with the seal unbroken. Later that morning, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, instructed funeral home director Ahmed Rayner to defy this command. He objected, citing the promises he made to the state of Mississippi and the professional obligations they entailed. But again she insisted and, finally, against his better judgment, he agreed.
What Mamie Till Bradley saw next horrified her, but it also steeled her resolve and inspired one of the defining moments of the modern civil rights movement. When she told Rayner she wanted to hold an open-casket funeral for her son, he asked her to reconsider, but when she again insisted, he relented, offering to retouch the corpse to make it more presentable. “No,” she told him. “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”
Mamie Till Bradley’s decision that day—coupled with the photos of her son’s corpse that she allowed Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender to circulate throughout the black press—galvanized a generation of civil rights activists. In calling for the world “to see what I’ve seen” (or as she said in another context, “to let the people see what they did to my boy”), Mamie Till Bradley was not the first to challenge white supremacy by demanding that the nation bear witness to this ideology’s strange and necessary fruit: the wounded black body. Others before her, like the editors of Crisis during the early part of the twentieth century, understood that this witness exposed white supremacy for what it truly was: a hatred not simply dependent upon violence as an occasional tool, but one founded on violence and requiring violence for its very existence. In addition, such witness combatted the willful blindness of a nation that, because it did not want to confront the true nature of its own history, enabled this violence to flourish. What Mamie Till Bradley added to this protest tradition, and what in large part accounts for the unique place that Emmett Till’s lynching holds in our collective racial memory, is that she demanded the nation behold not just any wounded body, but a son’s body, and that it reckon with not just any pain, but a mother’s pain.
It must be remembered, though, that in the immediate aftermath of her son’s death the direct visual witness Mamie Till Bradley called for was limited largely to the African American community. Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral was attended mostly by African Americans, and photos of his battered and disfigured face were rarely seen by whites, and never in the white press, during the civil rights movement. Eventually, however, the larger nation did begin to see what Mamie Till Bradley saw on that horrific day in 1955. Starting with the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize (whose role in shaping Emmett Till’s legacy cannot be overestimated), images of her son’s corpse started to circulate more widely, both to a new generation of African Americans and, for the first time, to whites. Since then, a steady stream of scholarly studies and documentary films, as well as works of art and websites, have enabled these images to reach a larger and more diverse audience, and this belated and repeated witnessing, coupled with the courage that Mamie Till Bradley showed in 1955, has profoundly influenced the way much of our nation responds to racial violence. Because of what we’ve seen, we cannot ignore Emmett Till. Nor should we want to.
Whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, Michael Brown or Philando Castile, Eric Garner or Alton Sterling, Mamie Till Bradley’s son haunts our understanding, and he does so largely because of what his mother demanded of us more than sixty years ago: that we bear witness. In a 2016 New Yorker essay on “The Power of Looking, from Emmett Till to Philando Castile,” Allyson Hobbes makes this connection directly and forcefully, in words worth quoting in full: “Mamie Till Bradley and Diamond Reynolds both shared their sorrow with the world. They asked onlookers to view the bodies of two black men and see a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a loved one. Looking is hard. It shakes us and haunts us, and it comes with responsibilities and risks. But, by allowing us all to look, Bradley and Reynolds offered us real opportunities for empathy. Bradley’s moral courage galvanized a generation of civil-rights activists. We have yet to see how far Reynolds’s bravery will take us.”
We hope one day such bravery will be unnecessary, but as we hope we must also see, and recently in Charlottesville another mother buried a child whose life was taken by a white supremacist, with a dozen more injured and a nation shaken. Although we wish we didn’t have to, we know what we must do. We must bear witness to this wound, and the wounds still to come. And we must do so with a faith as strong as Mamie Till Bradley’s, believing that this witness is worth the risk, that in seeing we will learn to see. This is Emmett Till’s legacy, a mother’s gift to her son and, eventually, to us all.
Featured Image credit: Protest outside of Minnesota Governor’s residence in October 2016. Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.