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Gary Younge
A black requiem played to old music

As the 81-year-old was laid to rest with a picture of her son pinned inside her coffin, the issues which propelled both of them into the spotlight in the civil rights era remained very much alive.

After the service on Saturday campaigners announced their intention to reopen the case of of her son's lynching in the Deep South almost 50 years ago, using new evidence unearthed by a documentary film maker.

"The struggle of our emancipation is the history of strong women," Jesse Jackson said from the pulpit of the Apostolic Church of God on Chicago's South Side. "She planned to be a mother and she became a freedom fighter," he told the congregation of several hundred, including congressmen and church leaders.

Mamie sent her 14-year-old son Emmett Till to Mississippi in August 1955 with a strict warning: "If you have to get on your knees and bow when a white person goes past, do it willingly." But Emmett was a prankster and unaccustomed to the racial mores of the South. He wolf whistled at a woman in a grocery, then said "Bye, baby" in the hamlet of Money, Mississippi.

Less than a week later his body was pulled out of the Tallahatchie river with a bullet in the skull, an eye gouged out and the forehead crushed on one side. The sheriff wanted the body buried quickly and only reluctantly returned it to Chicago with an order that the coffin should remain closed.

Mamie defied the order. "Have you ever sent a loved son on vacation and had him returned to you in a pine box, so horribly battered and water-logged that someone need to tell you this sickening sight is your son - lynched?"

"Do you want me to fix him up?" the undertaker asked. "No," Mamie said, "you can't fix that. Let the world see what I saw."

Her decision to leave the coffin open and delay the funeral by three days exposed the rest of America and the world to what was happening in Mississippi.

Jet, a popular black magazine, published a picture of the body. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the South Side to see the body on the first day the coffin was put on view, and more than 2,000 attended the funeral.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955 - the event which eventually led to the end of segregation on public transport, she said it was Till's lynching that was on her mind.

The two white men accused of killing him, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, were acquitted by an all-white jury, but Milam later confessed to a magazine reporter: "I'm no bully; I never hurt a nigger in my life. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice."

Emmett Till's murder was exceptional only in that it was managed to illustrate the rule: that violence against African-Americans in the south was common and that the law would not protect them.

It "touched our bone marrow," Mr Jackson said. "It touched the very DNA of our dignity. It was like an earthquake and the aftershocks went on to wake up and shake up a nation."

The aftershocks are still being felt. The recent resignation of Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, who said America would have been a better place if a segregationist had won the presidential elections in the sixties, showed how deep the wounds of segregation remain.

"A lot has changed," Nathaniel Watson said outside the Evangelistic Crusader Church of God in Christ, where Mamie's coffin was displayed on Friday.

"That thing could not happen now in the same way. But look around you," he said casting his arm at the dereliction that pervades much of the South Side. "It still ain't right and this is still not what we fought for."

"Things look different," said Sharon Campbell. "But when it comes down to it, that Trent Lott thing shows that all some white people changed is their tune. They're still singing the same song."

"That's right," her friend said. "They're still whistling Dixie."

The incident is seared in the memory of most African-Americans. Mamie went on to become a community activist and civil rights campaigner and began a foundation in the name of her son, and the Emmett Till players, who teach children oratorical skills by the recital of Martin Luther King's great speeches.

The lynching was the subject of the first play by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a poem by the Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, and a song by Bob Dylan. Popular interest has recently resurfaced. When Mamie died on Monday two documentaries were being made and two books written: another was published in November.

One of the documentary makers, Keith Beauchamp, has found witnesses who did not testify at the trial and have not previously spoken in public, one of them Till's cousin, who shared his bed the night he was abducted. They all say there were more people involved in the murder than previously thought and the Mississippi attorney general's office has said the case may be reopened.

Coming a year after the supreme court outlawed school segregation and less than a month before Martin Luther King rose to prominence during the Montgomery bus boycott prompted by Rosa Parks, it galvanised public outrage.

"If you were indifferent, the Till murder at 14 made you interested," the black paper the Chicago Defender wrote recently. "If you were a routine onlooker, the murder turned you into a revolutionary; if you were moderate, the murder turned you militant."

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Another Day in the Death of America
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Younge’s masterwork. To be read through tears. Brilliantly reported, quietly indignant and utterly gripping. Naomi Klein
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