Emmett Till had three caskets. When her body arrived in Chicago, it was nailed in the first of them: a pine box, nameless and utilitarian, indifferent to the meaning of what it carried.
Till had been killed by racists in Mississippi in 1955. He was beaten and shot, his body strapped to a cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. He was 14 years old.
The men who killed Till thought he had whistled at a white woman, flirted with her, or touched her arm. Decades later, the woman involved retracted part of her testimony. She said, “That part isn’t true.”
For her funeral, Till’s mother chose an open casket. She wanted the world to see the crimes she had committed against her son. A photograph of his face, horribly disfigured, ran in Jet magazine, then elsewhere.
Photography changed the way people saw the world. It probably changed the course of the civil rights movement. Poetess Claudia Rankine wrote that Grandma Till Mobley imposed “a new kind of logic” on America. She had insisted that “we look with her at the dead”.
In another, equally powerful image, Grandma Till Mobley stands next to her son’s coffin. She grips the wooden crown, the light clings to her sharp face. There is a handkerchief in his hand. An unseen person leans into the frame, helping to calm her grief. Inside the coffin are pinned photos of her smiling son, his youthful eyes shining above a now featureless and unrecognizable face.
Two weeks after Till’s murder, an all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before finding his killers not guilty. The state chose not to pursue the lesser charge of kidnapping. A year later, with the benefit of double jeopardy, the men who murdered him were paid by a magazine to tell the story of what they had done.
A third coffin was needed after Till’s body was exhumed in 2005, with his family still hoping that new evidence could reopen his case. State law prevented them from burying him in the same casket, so the original was turned over to the Smithsonian.
This week a 21-year-old man was charged with murder following the murder of Cassius Turvey in the Perth suburb. The Noongar teenager was 15 years old. He was reportedly beaten with a pole as he walked home from school. After five days of hospitalization, he suffered two strokes, was placed in a coma and died.
Again, his family allowed the publication of a photograph. There’s a tube taped in his nose and another in his mouth. His ears and skull are bandaged with gauze. He has the long eyelashes of a child.
There is little to say about this case, which is before the courts. What we can write is that occasionally an event will change the course of a country. Sometimes a picture so disturbs the people who look at it – so terrifies them with its frozen familiarity, its stolen innocence, its senselessness – that it brings with it Rankine’s “New Kind of Logic”.
Regardless of what happens in court, Cassius Turvey’s latest photo should. No country should be able to look at his still face and not question all the structures, prejudices and privileges that presided over his death. No country should accept that a boy could be killed on the way home from school because of, as the police foolishly speculated, “a case where he was in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 under the headline “Don’t Look Away”.
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