Leonard Pitts Jr

Open casket opened eyes

If you ever saw that picture of Emmett Till, you never forgot it.

Not the one that shows a handsome brown teenager, hat tipped up slightly off his forehead. Not,in other words, the "before" picture. No, I'm talking about the picture that was taken after. After he went from Chicago to visitfamily in Mississippi in the late summer of 1955. After he accepted a schoolboy dare to flirt with awhite woman working behind the counter of the general store. After he called her "baby" andallegedly gave a wolf whistle. After her husband and his half-brother came for him in the dead ofnight. After his body was fished from the Tallahatchie River.

The picture of him that was taken then, published in Jet magazine and flashed around the world,was stomach-turning. A lively and prankish boy had become a bloated grotesquerie - an ear missing,an eye gouged out, a bullet hole in his head. You looked at that picture and you felt that here wasthe reason coffins have lids.

But his mother refused onlookers that mercy, refused to give him a closed-casket funeral. Shedelayed the burial for four days, keeping her son's mutilated body on display as thousands came topay their respects. "I wanted the world to see what I had seen," she later explained. "I wanted theworld to see what had happened in Mississippi. I wanted the world to see what had happened inAmerica."

The world saw and was electrified.

Mamie Till Mobley died in Chicago on Monday of an apparent heart attack. And if one were seekingto sum up her life, it might be enough to say that she spent 47 years keeping the casket open,speaking, writing and agitating in the name of her murdered son. Indeed, her book, The Death ofInnocence, is due for release this year.

I met her once, maybe 30 years after her son's death, by which point she must have told his storya million times. And she still welled up as she spoke, her voice stammering and turning gray.

At the time, I was writing and producing a radio documentary tracing over 500 years of Africanand African-American history. I'll never forget my narrator's response when he reviewed a scriptthat recounted Emmett's ordeal and the ordeals of other black men and women who were hanged, burnedor hacked to pieces for the crime of being. He jokingly dubbed me "the Stephen King of blackhistory" for my insistence on including the grisly details.

But I happen to believe Mamie Till Mobley was right to keep the casket open.

We're always so eager to hide the horror. Close the casket, turn your eyes, use euphemism toobscure truths too obscene.

Consider Trent Lott's first attempt at apology, when he blithely described segregation as "thediscarded policies of the past." If you didn't know any better, you might have thought he wastalking about farm subsidies or tax codes, so bloodless and opaque was the language.

But segregation wasn't opaque and it surely wasn't bloodless. It was a Mississippi courtroomwhere the sheriff sauntered in every day and greeted spectators in the colored section with acheery, "Hello, niggers." It was two white men freely admitting that they had kidnapped a blackChicago boy. It was witnesses who placed the men at a barn inside which they heard a child beingtortured.

And it was a jury of white men who heard this evidence, then deliberated for less than an hourbefore returning an acquittal. As one of them told a reporter, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop,it wouldn't have took that long."

This is the fetid truth behind the flowery words, the stinking fact much of the nation wouldprefer not to know.

But by her very presence, a murdered boy's mother demanded that we be better than that, demandedthat we be, at least and at last, brave enough to face the horrors we have made and that have, inturn, made us.

Mamie Till Mobley was 81 years old at the time of her death. Her only child was 14 at the time ofhis.