"Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till"
By Simeon Wright with Herb Boyd
Lawrence Hill Books, 2010, 137 pp (Hardcover, $19.95)
You are 12 years old. It's the summer. You are happy because your cousin is visiting. But one "dark, dark night, four hours before sun up," you wake up and your father is standing in your bedroom with two men. Your mother is screaming and crying. The men have come for your cousin. He walks out of the bedroom with these strangers. You hear the car drive off but you never hear it come back again.
Your mother, terrified, leaves home. You find out your cousin is dead. Your dad and you are in danger because you are witnesses to a crime.
This is Simeon Wright's story. His cousin was Emmett Till - a Black teenager from Chicago who was kidnapped and lynched in 1955 while visiting family in the segregated South. Wright has just written a book, appropriately called "Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till."
Despite eyewitnesses, Till's killers were never convicted. As Wright retells it, "There was no justice for a black man in Mississippi if the case had anything to do with a white person.
The murder of Till and the subsequent decision of his mother, Mamie, to have an open casket funeral, was the spark that lit the fire of the Civil Rights Movement. The sight of Till's disfigured face published in Black newspapers across the country galvanized the community. Just months after his lynching, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white person on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Parks said she had Emmett Till on her mind.
In "Simeon's Story" Wright brings us back to August 1955 in a town called Money, Miss. He recounts the hard work of life on a farm, including the back-breaking job of picking cotton. He recalls the racist terror: "The Ku Klux Klan and night riders were part of our daily lives. We had separate schools, water fountains, churches and restaurants. The cemeteries were even segregated."
He dedicates the book to his father, Moses Wright, who courageously testified in court against the two white men charged with Till's murder, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. "It was the first time in the history of the state," Wright reports, "that a black man accused a white man of anything ... I felt extremely proud."
One of the inaccuracies plaguing the Till story that disturbs him most is how his father's court testimony was reported: "According to the story, Dad pointed out J.W. Milam while on the witness stand, he said, 'Thar he' in broken English. Dad's English was not broken; in fact, he was very careful about his pronunciation and his use of language. As a preacher, he was used to speaking in public, so for anyone to suggest that he spoke so poorly is crazy."
Wright relates a revealing episode in the Till tragedy. He was with Till, whose nickname was Bobo, and four other boys at the Bryant grocery store.
Wright's brother was concerned about Till not knowing "Mississippi rules" and sent Simeon into the store with him so he wouldn't be alone. Earlier, Till had bought firecrackers at another store and set them off in town.
After the youths left theBryant store together, Till made a dangerous mistake, Wright says. As Mrs. Bryant left the store to go to her car, Till whistled at her. "I think he wanted to get a laugh out of us or something. He was always joking around, and it was hard to tell when he was serious. It was a loud wolf whistle, a big-city 'whee wheeee!' and it caught us all by surprise. We all looked at each other, realizing that Bobo had violated a longstanding unwritten law, a social taboo..."
The teenagers panicked. "Like a group of boys who had thrown a rock through somebody's window, we ran to the car. Bobo, with a slight limp from the polio he'd contracted as a child, ran along with us, but not as panic-stricken as we were. After seeing our fright, it did slowly dawn on him that he had done something wrong."
Wright says Till begged the boys not to tell on him. He was afraid of being sent back to Chicago, thereby ending the fun they were having up to that point. "We didn't want that to happen so we promised to keep quiet for Bobo's sake. It never occurred to me that Bobo would be killed for whistling at a white woman."
Wright's life has been plagued by "what if." "If I had told Dad, he would have done one of two things: either he would have taken Bobo back to the store and made him apologize to Mrs. Bryant or he would have sent Bobo home as soon as possible. Either way, perhaps Bobo would be alive today."
In a Jan. 18 telephone interview, Wright said he remembers feeling all alone after the trial: "We got the feeling no one was there to help us."
The brutal kidnapping and murder of Till, and the ensuing terror had a lifelong impact on Wright. He thinks of his cousin every day: "Certain sounds that I hear. Every car I heard approaching from the west, or the smell of honeysuckle triggers memories."
Perhaps the most emotional scar came from his mother's flight out of Mississippi. "You never get over that," Wright said. "But she was so terrified. It was a crucial point of my life. I can still hear the crying and talking."
Wright participated in Sojourn to the Past, a living black history class of high school juniors and seniors. Wright said he was inspired to write this book by the students who were interested in the Till case. He said he wants the book to inspire young and old alike to stand up to all types of "bullies."
"If you see a bully, deal with it," he said. "You have to help the little guy. There are more Emmett Tills in the world. You have to fight for the little man."
Wright also credits his wife and filmmaker Keith Beauchamp for recording his eyewitness account of this horrific event in his family's lives and our nation's history. Beauchamp investigated Till's murder, 50 years later, and found many inaccuracies in the story. He also found that a number of eyewitnesses to the events were not interviewed. Beauchamp's research led him to make a documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till." The documentary and the work of Till's mother and the Emmett Till Justice Campaign won wide support to reopen the case. In 2004, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would begin to reinvestigate. Despite the exhumation of Till's body, confessions and witnesses, there were no new indictments. The case remains "unsolved" today.
In 2008, Wright helped lobby for the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which was signed into law Oct. 7, 2008. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, was blocking its passage with a procedural maneuver. But Wright got a call on Sept. 24 from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid informing him the Till Bill had finally passed.
In a statement Reid said, "The bill has always had broad bipartisan support; it is nothing short of shameful that it languished for more than a year because of one Republican Senator. But today we can be proud that the U.S. Senate has at long last acted to resolve unthinkable, unsolved Civil Rights-era murders like Emmett Till's." The bill allocates $10 million a year toward the Justice Department's cold case investigations. There are numerous unsolved civil rights crimes.
Wright also credits unions and especially African American union leaders, like Rayfield Mooty of the United Steelworkers, for their work on the Till case and other important equality issues. Mooty, a relative of Mamie Till, helped mobilize Chicago unionists to support the family and their call for justice. Mooty also helped Wright get his first job at Reynolds Aluminum Company. Eventually, Wright became a pipefitter and a member of the Pipefitters union, Local 597.
"Take the unions out of it and we're done for," he said.
While Wright has seen some improvements on racism over the years, including the election of Barack Obama, he said for African Americans, "it's much bleaker now than then. Because of the job situation. Our standard of living has fallen." He recalled that in 1974 when nearby Electric Motors started there were "13,000 workers, now there are a few cars over there."
He said unless something is done to create jobs, there will be "dancing in the streets again."
"That's what I call marching," he added.
Wright is an extraordinary man with a harrowing story to tell. Through it all, he finds forgiveness and resiliency. His story should be read by all.
For more reading on this subject, "From Emmett Till to Harold Washington, meet Arlene Brigham, foot soldier for equality."