Simeon Wright, 73, recall memories of his cousin, Emmett Till, during a visit to an Oak Park middle school on May 4. Wright wants to correct the historical record about the infamous whistle that led to Till’s heinous death in 1955. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal
Tuesday, May 10, 2016 || By Michael Romain
Simeon Wright, 73, wanted an auditorium full of 8th graders to know that his 14-year-old cousin, Emmett Till, wasn’t much different from most of them. He was a rambunctious city kid who loved to laugh and had a lifetime of ambitions ahead of him before he was tortured and lynched on Aug. 28, 1955 by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for allegedly whistling at the former’s wife, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store.
Till’s body was found several days later in Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River, where it was tied with barbed wire to a metal fan. After his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that his body be brought back to his hometown of Chicago and displayed in an open casket, the image of the boy’s swollen, mutilated corpse appeared in a Sept. 2, 1955 issue of Jet Magazine. The moment, many historians believe, helped spark the modern Civil Rights movement.
But it was the infamous whistle that precipitated his murder that Wright wants to place into context. It was the sound of a wisecracking, life-loving boy whose complex humanity was taken from him, Wright noted.
__ More after the photo __
A picture of Till’s body published in Jet Magazine’s Sept. 2, 1955 issue.
Emmett Till had dreams
“He dreamed of being a comedian,” Wright said during a May 4 visit to an Oak Park middle school. “He wanted to pattern his routine after George Gobel. You’d have to ask your grandfather, maybe your great-grandfather, ‘Who was George Gobel?”
Wright, born in Mississippi and a cotton-picker since the age of eight, would revel in his cousin’s story of mythical Chicago — of Lincoln Park Zoo and a famous gorilla named Bushman, supposedly the biggest one in captivity; of Riverview Park on Belmont and Western, home of The Bobs rollercoaster, one of the most famous wooden coasters in the world.
“Can you imagine me hearing about Lincoln Park Zoo in the cotton fields of Mississippi? I didn’t believe it,” said Wright, who was more accustomed to the horizontal simplicity of the Mississippi Delta — where everything, even childhood fun, was dictated by the cotton sack and work that lasted, during the harvest, “from sun to none.”
“At the age of 8, we got a seven-foot [cotton sack],” Wright recalled. “At the age of 11, we got a nine-footer,” which the retired pipe fitter currently keeps in his garage in Countryside, where he moved after living in Bellwood for two decades.
The sack was also a tool for tempering any unruliness. Wright’s father, Mose, would make him and his brothers drag one of the sacks around until, “at the end of the day, we’d be so tired we had no energy left.”
As with the cotton sack, the memory of his now iconic cousin is still with him — even though, to most of the young people he speaks to, both are more relic than real.
“A lot of times we read things in 7th and 8th grade history lessons,” but it’s not often that students get to see someone who was part of that history,” said Brooks Middle School humanities teacher Karen Tokarz. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Wright has dedicated his post-retirement to correcting a large chunk of that conventional history — the history most of the students have either read about in schoolbooks or watched in films, like the now-canonic “Eyes on the Prize” series of documentaries.
“So much stuff out there is not true,” Wright said. “You’ve seen ‘Eyes on the Prize?’ My [nephew is] in there talking about what happened at the store? He said my brother and I dared Emmett to go in the store. I said, ‘Get out of here!’ We’d have been just as guilty as the people who killed him if we’d done that. But that’s in history and I’m trying to correct it.”
Wright said this version of events was even memorialized at the National Civil Right Museum in Memphis. He said students from Chicago who would visit the museum would protest the exhibit until “they finally took it down.”
In the summer of 1955, Till took a trip from Chicago to the home of his great-uncle, Mose Wright, who lived about three miles away from the small town of Money, Mississippi. On a Wednesday night, Till and his cousins traveled to Money.
“My brother, Maurice, was 16 at the time,” said Wright, who was 12. “He was driving my daddy’s car. Emmett and Wheeler were sitting in the front seat and I was sitting in the back seat with two other neighbors. Most of the stores, we only had five, closed for the night. This guy was so mean he wouldn’t close the store. So we had to go into this store.”
Wright said his nephew, Wheeler Parker, went into the store first while Till followed behind him. When Parker left, Wright said, his older brother Maurice insisted that someone go inside to be with Till.
“Emmett didn’t know the mores of the south,” Wright said. “What was dangerous to us was fun to him.”
The version of events presented by Wright and Wheeler weren’t included in “Eyes on the Prize.” The documentary captures an interview with Wright’s nephew Curtis Jones, who wasn’t near the store at the time of the infamous whistle.
According to Jones, Wright and his nephew dared Till to go inside the store. Jones also claimed that Till was carrying in his wallet pictures of white girlfriends back at home. Wright and Parker have disputed the first claim and during his May 4 talk, Wright said he’d never seen such photos.
“They painted him like he was a mannish boy come down here and just going to bogart the system, but it didn’t happen like that,” Parker told Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass in 2014. “For 30 years, nobody interviewed us about it, and we were almost shamed to talk about it.”
Wright said he doesn’t know what happened between the time Parker left out of the store and he went inside to monitor Till. When he walked inside, however, his cousin “had the Cheshire cat look on his face,” Wright said.
“I don’t know what he said to Carolyn Bryant [the white woman attending the store] in that minute, but inside the store nothing was said. We left the store together. We were standing by the door,” Wright recalled, before calling a young 8th grade girl to the front of the auditorium to demonstrate a wolf-whistle so that the children “will never forget” the sound.
“They asked me, ‘Why did he do it?’ He wanted us to laugh,” Wright said. “It scared us half to death. We couldn’t get out of town fast enough.”
As they were driving away, Till begged his cousins not to tell Uncle Mose, because if Wright’s father found out, the 14-year-old would’ve been sent back to Chicago in an instant. Wright said he, his brother and cousins didn’t tell, because they couldn’t imagine that not two weeks later, Till’s swollen and deformed body would be pulled out of the Tallahatchie River.
“I’d never heard of a lynching,” Wright said. “They didn’t put those in the paper.”
For Wright, the whistling incident that precipitated Till’s historic martyrdom encapsulates the ambivalence of history and memory. That moment in time has been either distorted to fit racist stereotypes or romanticized to fit a mythical image of Till as a meek and mild saint, Wright and Wheeler noted.
Emmett was just a child like you all, Wright kept emphasizing to the students over and over again, in so many iterations; his testimony giving form and depth to the measure of Till’s individuality.
There was never a dare and there were no pictures, Wright told the students. Those are the “lies that are in history that you all are going to help me erase.” VFP