It’s been 60 years since thousands of mourners bore witness to the mutilated face of Emmett Till during his open-casket funeral in a church on Chicago’s South Side.
But Sunday, Till’s family returned to Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ and helped connect a pivotal moment in the last century’s civil rights movement to the controversial deaths of blacks today.
“Lives have been changed, our culture has changed, because Emmett speaks,” Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin, told the crowd inside the church’s sanctuary.
Parker recalled his place in the sanctuary during Till’s 1955 funeral. That was the summer when he allegedly whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, while he was visiting from Chicago. On Aug. 28, he was kidnapped from his great uncle’s home by the woman’s husband and his half-brother.
When they finally found Till’s body on Aug. 31 in the Tallahatchie River, barbed wire had been wrapped around his neck and his body had been weighted down with a cotton gin fan.
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Sunday’s program was part of a weekend full of events in Chicago planned by Till’s family and the the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation to mark the 60th anniversary of the murder. The mother of Trayvon Martin and the father of Michael Brown Jr. were among the special guests expected to attend.
The mother of Sandra Bland also joined Till’s family during Sunday’s service at the Roberts Temple Church. Its sanctuary has since been remodeled, and the building has been designated a city landmark. Photos of Till’s funeral were placed near the back of the sanctuary, including a large photograph of Till’s battered face.
The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton had been scheduled to speak Sunday, but neither of the civil rights leaders attended.
Janette Wilson of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition said Jackson had to leave town to attend to his ailing mother. She also said Sharpton promised in a text message to send a $5,000 contribution to the Mamie Till Mobley foundation.
“When you think about Emmett Till’s life and his murder, what did it really mean to America?” Wilson said. “Well, it is the same thing that the death of the South Carolina Nine means today. It’s the same thing that Eric Garner’s death means today. There’s always this action, this move of God in the lives of ordinary people, that causes us to refocus and re-image our situation.”
The Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Parish urged attendees to start a movement of their own.
“We are not a whole lot better than 60 years before,” Pfleger said. “We’ve got to acknowledge this America still lives. Hate still rules in America. And injustice is still the clothes that America puts on far too often.”