Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. (Photo: John Young/THV 11 News)
(This is Part Two of the Simeon Wright story, to read his account of witnessing Emmett Till whistle at the white woman, click here.)
It's a tragedy that had perhaps one of the greatest impacts on civil rights; an impact still being felt today: The kidnapping and murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi.
And for his family, that tragedy is even greater.
Simeon Wright recently visited Laman Library's new civil rights exhibit in North Little Rock. He came upon a tribute to his cousin, Emmett Till. On one side, it was a picture of the 14-year old smiling, leaning up against a stand of some sort. When asked about his thoughts when he sees it, he says, "When you look at this picture, what do you think? I tried to visualize how Emmett was in 1955." And he says, when asked to describe Emmett's demeanor, he says, "You see him smiling; he was always smiling."
But on the other side of this Till tribute, you see a darker image of Emmett; of what happened to him for whistling at a white woman in Money, Mississippi. It's an unspeakable photo of a beaten, swollen Emmett. He had been shot, was swollen and bloated after being thrown in the Tallahatchie River and remaining there for days. The picture shows Emmett's mom, Mamie, collapsing at the gruesome sight of what they'd done to her son. Simeon shaking his head says, "In this particular case, (this happened) just because he was black."
Wright, who was 12 years old at the time in 1955, recalls the days and months after the murder and remembers his aunt's reaction. Emmett's mom refused to have a closed-casket funeral, in essence refused to keep this lynching a secret.
"This was different," Wright explained. "Because not only did she talk about it, she showed the world what these men did to her baby."
After a jury acquitted the two men who were accused of the lynching, Wright and his family moved to Chicago and his somewhat quiet life, solemn, and peaceful views changed. Wright explains, "I was angry and I wanted to take my revenge to that particular expression."
Wright says he blamed everybody for the crime and in 1966, missed a chance to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He said he didn't qualify for the event because he was, at that time, anything but non-violent.
"[They] said if they hit you, you couldn't hit back, if they spit on you, you couldn't spit back, we said no way," recalls Wright.
For years, Wright fought an internal battle with himself, coming to terms with what happened; and at 24 he did. He says, "I was sitting in a tavern, think I'd been fighting that night. I heard a voice...say 'I love you, I know what you been through; said you if you die in your sins, you're going to hell," he continues. "In 3 weeks, I'd quit everything, drinking, smoking."
He committed his life to Christ and the anger left. So now when he speaks to groups, especially kids, he asks this one question; "If you had been there, would you have helped us? Every time I ask that question, the answer is 'yes;' that's all I want the kids to understand is to help your fellow man."
As a nation, Wright says, we've come a long way. He sums it up with his last words of our interview; "Emmett Till was killed August 28, 1955. Dr. King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech August 28, 1963. Senator Obama accepted the nomination for President of the United States, August 28, 2008...connect the dots. From mayhem, to hope, to reality."
Simeon Wright says he doesn't hate the two men, who four months after being acquitted admitted torturing and killing his cousin, adding in a sense that he has peace about the deeds J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant have done. They died in 1981 and 1994, respectively.
As for Carolyn Bryant, the woman Emmett Till whistled at, Wright says she's still alive, but he's never spoken to or met her.