SACRAMENTO – “He is.”
Two simple words sealed the fate of a young teenager spending an idyllic summer with his Southern relatives.
Author Simeon Wright recalls how his 14-year-old cousin Emmett Till was dragged from his family’s Mississippi home in 1955 by two White men and taken outside where a White woman, Carolyn Bryant, waited in a truck. The men, the woman’s husband and brother-in-law, asked if Till was the young man who had whistled at her days before outside their nearby grocery store. She confirmed that he was and Wright never saw his cousin alive again.
Wright was in Sacramento last week, sharing “the real story of Emmett Till.” He was the keynote speaker at a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration hosted by the Capitol City Seventh Day Adventist Church on January 19. Wright is the author of the book, “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till.”
Wright was at the store when the whistling incident occurred and was in the bed next to Till, whom the family called “Bobo,” when he was abducted and murdered.
“The safest place in the world should be your bedroom, but my bedroom turned into a chamber of horrors,” Wright said.
Till came to visit his family in Money, Mississippi only after convincing his mother that “he’d act the way he was supposed to act in the South.”
Wright gave context to what that meant, back in 1955.
“Back then, it (racism) was in your face, they’d tell you, ‘I’ll kill you and your mama,’” he said.
Throughout the book and during his national speaking engagements, Wright seeks to share how he and his family’s lives were impacted by Till’s murder.
He also said that he wanted to clear up misconceptions and myths that have grown out of Till’s infamous death.
Lies, he says, were even told by a member of his own family. He pointed to an episode of the PBS show “Eyes on the Prize,” in which his nephew, Curtis Jones was featured. Jones had also come to visit from Chicago.
“He was lying through his teeth, he wasn’t even there (at the store),” Wright shared.
Jones told filmmakers that the boys that were with Till at the Bryants’ store dared him to whistle at the female owner. This story has been often repeated in accounts of Till’s life and death.
Wright vehemently denies that he and the others goaded Till.
“If we had dared him to do that, we’d be just as guilty as the people who killed him,” he said.
Wright says the others could only guess that Till was trying to get a laugh from the boys.
“He had no idea what he had done. It scared us half to death,” he shared.
After begging them not to tell his great uncle, who’d likely make him leave town, the boys simply forgot the incident. They went on with having fun, filling their days with swimming in the creek and “borrowing” watermelons from a neighbor’s field.
While it would be hard to replace the publicized image of Till’s bloated body after it was pulled from the river, Wright’s recollections give a new picture of Till.
“He was a good storyteller,” Wright said. Till, he said, also had a good sense of humor.
There would be little to laugh about though after he was taken and killed.
Wright’s father, a local preacher, would later be convinced by civil rights leader Medgar Evers to testify against the men who murdered his great-nephew. While both men were acquitted, they later admitted to the killing in a magazine.
Wright said that Till’s brutal murder gave an urgency to the civil rights movement.
“After Emmett was killed… people started to resist the Jim Crow system, they began to fight,” Wright shared.
Event emcee Marnel Goins said the story is a reminder of the need for social change. Wright says he shares it in an effort to “empower the present with the past.”
“Wonder why they didn’t want us to get an education? Wright asked the audience at Capitol City Seventh Day Adventist Church.
“It wasn’t because we’re Black; they had free labor. If we learned to read, we’re not going to pick that cotton,” he said.
Wright says today’s generation must fight modern racism and discrimination with education, as those who came before them did.
“Encourage your kids to learn their history,” he said. “Tell them to turn off the MP3 and the Xbox and do their homework.”
In addition to Wright’s talk, the local King Day celebration at Capitol City also featured musical performances.
Among those taking the stage were the male acapella group, Old Tyme Religion, the Capital City Church Praise Team, horn player Keith Morgan, and the Capitol City Chorale.
The event was sponsored by the church, its Jamaica Mission Trip Committee, its Women’s Koinonia and Dr. Karen McCord, a professor of Psychology and Ethnic Studies at Solano Community College.
By Genoa Barrow
OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer