The new film Till takes us back to the lynching of an innocent fourteen-year-old and the maternal outrage that lit a match to the civil rights movement. Percival Everett’s riveting new novel The Trees, funny as hell and just as fierce, uses the same piece of history to torch the bigotry that outlasted that movement. But if you catch yourself thinking that a shaken nation remembers and learns from what happened, check what followed.
Because lynching was not enough.
Emmett had left Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi. We will never know for sure where he died—after being falsely accused of whistling at a White woman, he was abducted by her husband and brother-in-law, beaten, shot dead, and tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a seventy-five-pound cotton gin fan tied to his neck.
His body was found three days later. His mother had to fight to bring the body home to Chicago, and then she had to fight again just to see her son’s body. The local sheriff’s office had only returned the casket to Chicago on the condition that it would never be opened.
Mamie Till-Mobley got that casket opened and kept it open. Inside the lid, she taped a photo of her son happy and handsome the previous Christmas, his brown eyes soft with delight, proud in his white shirt and tie, hat pushed back, his cheeks still plump with baby fat. Thousands came to the visitation; several people fainted or had to be helped outside. But Till-Mobley was not done. She invited a photographer to take a picture of what remained of her boy’s beaten, drowned face. She wanted all of America to bear witness.
More than half a century later, a sign was placed on the shore of the Tallahatchie at the spot where Emmett’s body was found. The sign was ripped from the ground and probably thrown into the river as forcefully as his body had been. By the time its replacement was removed, it had been punctured by 317 bullet holes. The third sign was shot up a month after it was installed. A photo surfaced on a private Instagram account: three White frat boys from Ole Miss posing next to the sign, one holding a rifle, another holding a shotgun, all three of them grinning.
Now there is a fourth sign, this one weighing 500 pounds and bulletproof, reinforced with steel and protective glass and monitored by surveillance cameras. Local historians are pretty sure somebody will drive down that gravel road after dark, cross the cotton field to the river, and find a way to vandalize the sign again. The hate is that strong.
The men who killed Emmett were acquitted immediately by a jury of twelve White men. The following year, they admitted to killing him in an interview with Look magazine. Half a century after the lynching, the FBI, hoping to reopen the case, exhumed his body, confirmed his identity, then reburied him in a new casket. His mother had never been satisfied with the Burr Oak Cemetery—Emmett’s gravesite was often flooded, mowers broke his headstone, the tiny photo of him from his last Christmas was tattered, the flower vase knocked sideways. But Burr Oak had hired a new manager in 2001, and she promised to build the Emmett Till Historical Museum on the grounds, honoring his legacy.
That never happened.
Instead, the manager was arrested and charged with dismembering remains, reselling occupied plots, and stealing more than $100,000 from the cemetery. Emmett’s original casket had been stuck in a storage shed inhabited by a family of opossums. Furious, his family had it restored and gave it to the Smithsonian. But his body remains at Burr Oak, its headstone small and simple, so easy to overlook that relatives marked the grave with a brown road sign for Emmett Till Memorial Bridge.
In March 2021, almost seven decades after Emmett’s murder, President Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, officially designating lynching a federal hate crime. Seems like that should be obvious—yet it had taken more than a century to reach consensus. As early as 1900, Rep. George Henry White, at the time the only Black member of Congress, introduced an antilynching bill that failed to pass. Nearly two hundred bills followed; none made it through the Senate. In 2005, the Senate did manage to pass a resolution apologizing for its failure to make lynching a federal crime—but still did not make lynching a federal crime. “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility,” remarked Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
We now study lynching as a shameful historical phenomenon, a gripping plot for a film or book. Surely the long overdue legislation is purely symbolic, not a practical disincentive because it jacks up the penalty.
Or is it?
The FBI ended its investigation in 2006 and repeated the Department of Justice’s earlier conclusion that the statutes of limitation had expired and no federal prosecution as a civil-rights crime was possible. The “Precipitating Events” section in the thorough, fruitless report identifies local Whites’ “fear that they would lose control of their way of life.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.