Simeon Wright, born in Doddsville, Miss., in 1942, said he could never erase the memory of his cousin, Emmett Till, then only 14 years old, being snatched from their shared bedroom in Money, Miss., by two white men on a hot August night in 1955.
Wright, who died on Sept. 4 at his home in Countryside, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, remained silent for many years about the events that transpired leading up to his cousin’s abduction. But after federal officials reopened the case about 10 years ago, he broke his silence to correct the numerous “distortions of the real story.”
Until cancer forced him to retreat to his bed, Wright committed himself to speaking to youth groups across the country, to gatherings of historians … “to anyone who would benefit from hearing the truth.”
“Young people coming from the North (as Emmett did from Chicago for summer vacation) really did not have a clue — they didn’t understand Jim Crow laws — laws meant to keep Black folks down and which could lead those who violated the codes to be beaten or jailed. We never thought it could be the cause of one’s death — not at least until Emmett was murdered. Then it became a very different world for all of us,” Wright said.
“But Emmett never touched Carolyn Bryant (the co-owner of the store we stopped at for candy). Emmett never asked her for a date or put his arm around her. And as for the part of him even speaking to her, and his words being misinterpreted because of a speech impediment — that would come up many years later — that was probably advanced by someone who wasn’t even there.”
“Yes, Emmett did whistle at her. He was known to pull pranks. And we [Simeon and his older brother Maurice] were scared out of our minds. I remember our jumping into the car so fast that my brother dropped his cigarette and had to reach down to pick it up and we took off down that road as fast as we could. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
“Shortly after leaving the store, we saw a car coming up from behind us, and we thought it might be Mrs. Bryant’s husband or someone coming after us. So, everyone jumped out of the car and ran through the cotton fields. I stayed hidden in the car. But the car passed by and we figured the worst was behind us.”
Tragically, and as history would show, the worst was yet to come.
Decades later, and after numerous documentaries had addressed the heinous torture and murder of Emmett, found tied to a 75-pound cotton gin fan in the Tallahatchie River, naked, a bullet hole in his head, only two teeth remaining, both ears gone, the bridge of his nose hacked like it had been cut by a meat cleaver, his genitals removed and his face and the back of his head separated, Wright says he’d had enough. He would have to “set the record straight.”
He also said he remained disappointed by the products of authors like Christopher Benson who co-authored an autobiography with Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley in 2003 and Juan Williams’ “Eyes on the Prize” because neither presented the complete, factual details.
“Writers never mention Mamie’s second husband, LeMoris Malloy, and how he supported her and the family during those terribly difficult days,” Wright said. “There were so many so-called facts that had to be corrected. One that always bothered me was the story that they had to sneak my father [Emmett’s great-uncle, Mose Wright who testified at the trial] out of Mississippi after the trial. That never happened. There was no escape plan. He was never hidden in a coffin and taken across state lines for his own safety.”
“What is true is that my dad was shocked and disappointed after the verdict came in not guilty. He had put his life on the line and felt that both the government and the state had failed him — had failed Emmett. He told us that day, after the trial was over, that we had to leave Mississippi. We sold what we could, gave the rest away, and left. We even had to leave our dog. That is my history and it’s painful. But later, after overcoming a profound hatred of white people, I realized that it would always be part of me.”
“As for decision Emmett’s mother made to keep his coffin open during his funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son, that took great courage. But it may well have saved thousands of others from suffering a similar fate,” he said.
As the Rev. Al Sharpton said when asked about Emmett’s murder and that unforgettable photograph that showed the frightening remains of his broken body, “Generations unborn would owe their gratitude to the mother of Emmett Till. She made America deal with its ugly, racial problem.”
Wright said he finally spoke out because he wanted at least partial justice in the name of his cousin Emmett.
“I remember being taught in school that if we don’t enforce the law, we will have lawlessness. I want to see the laws of Mississippi enforced. And I also want young people to understand, whether it is under Jim Crow in America or apartheid in South Africa, not all whites are bad people. They aren’t low down and dirty. Most back then were just afraid to speak out and didn’t want to get involved. I’m not so sure it that has really changed so much more than 50 years later,” Wright exclaimed.
Editor’s Note: Simeon Brown Wright first sat down with this reporter to set the record straight about the kidnapping and murder of his cousin, Emmett Till, in February 2007 in Chicago. Several years later he published a memoir, “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till” (2010). In a recently-published book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” written by Duke University professor Timothy B. Tyson, Carolyn Bryant, the Mississippi white woman who claimed that Emmett had both whistled at and physically menaced her, admitted that she had lied, in part, during the murder trial of her husband, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam. Both men, now dead, would eventually admit to their crimes after being paid by Look magazine to share the gruesome details in a news article published in 1956. Of course, as the case had been closed and an all-white jury had found the two “not guilty,” neither man could be retried for the same crime.