After decades of silence, Simeon Wright finally recounts the night his cousin Emmett Till was martyred.By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs
Simeon Wright is a retired pipe fitter living in west suburban Summit Argo. He's a church deacon and a happily married man. He also has a place in history, though he's not proud of the reason.
Wright was a witness to the encounter that led to the 1955 lynching death of his cousin, Emmett Till, a tragedy that galvanized the civil rights movement. He was in bed next to Till—whom the family called Bobo—the night he was kidnapped.
Till, who was from Chicago, was 14 when his mother, Mamie, sent him down to Money, Mississippi, for a visit with her uncle Moses Wright and his family. One evening he and a group including Simeon went into town for a trip to the white-owned Bryant's Grocery. Accounts still vary as to what happened: some say Till whistled at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant; some that he told her "Bye, baby" when leaving the store; some that he took her hand and asked her for a date. Carolyn herself later claimed that Till had grabbed her and put his arms around her.
Four days later she, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, turned up at the Wright house in the middle of the night and took Till away, the two men threatening Moses with death if he told anyone. Three days after that, Till's mutilated body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River.
Simeon was 12 then. Now he's 67. For years he tried to stifle the memory and flat-out refused to talk about it, even to his wife, Annie. But it wouldn't go away, and it has finally come out in the form of a book: Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, cowritten with New York journalist Herb Boyd and published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. The book is about more than that terrible day. It's also about a man who could've stayed angry his entire life but found a way not to.
"Every time I'd see a film or read an article about it, I'd get upset," Simeon says, sipping coffee at a Starbucks near his house, wearing a Mount Rushmore souvenir cap and a green windbreaker. After the trial resulted in the acquittal of both men charged, despite the brave testimony of his father, Wright and his family had been crushed. "I was enraged and embittered by the verdict," he writes. "What made it worse were the shouts of victory, glee, and sheer joy coming from the whites inside and outside of the courtroom."
The family abandoned their farm and moved north to what was then known as Argo, after the town's corn starch refinery. Simeon grew into a tough young man who didn't walk away from a fight with anyone white.
"You know, hate is a strong word," he says, carefully. "I grew up with a chip on my shoulder. I was going to fight back. I had that chip until the age of 24. I knew those white boys would call me the N word, and all I did was wait for them to say it."
After graduating from high school in 1962, Simeon went through the apprentice program at Reynolds Aluminum in McCook, Illinois. He didn't take part in the civil rights movement. "While I sincerely believed in Dr. King's goals, I didn't agree with his nonviolent strategy at the time," he writes. "If somebody hit me, I was going to hit him back. I remember being simply amazed to see footage on television of black people being pulled from their cars and beaten during civil rights marches. . . . I would have run over every one of those whites before I allowed them to pull me from my car."
He met Annie in 1964, and they started dating. To her he seemed well-adjusted, regular. But mentally he was struggling.
"I was dreaming that I'd be shot," he says. "And I don't believe in slipups. If you have a premonition you've got to change your ways."
That's when Simeon had a talk with God. He says the spirit came upon him while he was drunk. "The voice said, 'If you die in your sins you're going to hell,'" he says. "That next night I told my friends, 'Boys, I'm going to church.' I went to a church on the south side, near 73rd and Chappelle, and I committed myself to Christ."
After he heard the voice he stopped dating Annie, choosing to give himself over to the faith. But she waited patiently, and started going to church too. They married in 1971 and, he writes in his book, "are still together and madly in love."
In the late 90s Simeon was approached by Keith Beauchamp, who was at work on the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. Through Beauchamp he met Boyd, the author of 18 books includingWe Shall Overcome: The History of the Civil Rights Movement as It Happened, who encouraged him to write an eyewitness account. Annie had also been badgering him about setting the record straight.
"I got tired of him" complaining about distorted accounts, she says. "I said, 'Well, if you want the truth, then write it.' He kept hee-hawing. I told him he wasn't no spring chicken."
In 2004 the U.S. Justice Department, prompted in part by Beauchamp's documentary, reopened an investigation into the case, exhuming Till's body from his grave in Burr Oak Cemetery the following year. The medical examiner found that he had died from a gunshot wound to the head and ruled it a homicide. But Milam and Roy Bryant had already died, both from cancer, and there wasn't any evidence directly implicating Carolyn.
After reading a story about the exhumation, Jeff Steinberg, executive director of the black living-history group Sojourn to the Past, contacted Wright, asking him to address student groups. He began meeting with them in 2006, and the following year began work on the book. In the acknowledgments he thanks the students, who in their "passion and hunger for the truth . . . literally pulled the story out of me."
Written with young adults in mind, his memoir begins with a portrait of life in the jim crow south. He goes on to recount his memories of the events of Till's visit and abduction and the trial that took place a scarce three weeks after the discovery of the body. (He and his family were unable to attend the funeral in Chicago, which was held with an open casket at Mamie's insistence and drew a crowd of 50,000.) He writes about growing up in Argo, praising several white teachers who encouraged him, and covers the federal reinvestigation of the case and the 2008 passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act, which set up a Justice Department cold-case unit to investigate crimes of the civil rights era.
But at the book's heart is what he heard and saw. Mamie always insisted that her son, who had a stutter, must have whistled while trying to get a word out. Simeon says that nothing of the sort happened inside the store—and that the counter between Bobo and Carolyn Bryant prevented any contact of the sort she claimed to have occurred. He says that after leaving the store the group was standing out in front when a few minutes later she came out and headed toward her car. Bobo, he writes, let out a "loud wolf whistle, a big-city 'whee wheeeee!'"
The stunned southerners panicked, and Bobo begged them not to tell anyone what he'd done. Simeon didn't.
If he could do it all over again, he says, he would have told his father everything the first time around. He wouldn't have clammed up. Perhaps then Till could have been saved.
"If I'd known, if I'd dreamed what would have happened, I would have told daddy that he whistled," Simeon says. "But it's over. You go from anger to forgiving the people who did this. You don't get over it, but you do get through it."