[Marxism] Simeon Wright, Witness to Abduction of Emmett Till, Dies at 74
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Thu Sep 7 18:14:28 MDT 2017
NY Times, Sept. 7 2017
Simeon Wright, Witness to Abduction of Emmett Till, Dies at 74
By SAM ROBERTS
Simeon Wright picked cotton all day in his father’s field on Wednesday,
Aug. 24, 1955, just as he had done every summer growing up in the
Mississippi Delta. It was just too hot, though, for his 14-year-old
citified cousin, Emmett Till.
After a few hours of harvesting, Emmett, lately arrived on vacation from
Chicago, wearily retreated to the Wrights’ home on Dark Fear Road, just
outside the cotton-milling hamlet of Money, Miss.
That night, the boys sought refreshment with relatives and friends, all
black, at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money. Inside, Emmett bought
some bubble gum from the 21-year-old white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who
ran the store with her husband. It was a fateful encounter.
She would tell her husband that Emmett had made a sexually suggestive
remark to her, that he had grabbed her by the waist, that he had let
loose a wolf whistle. She would repeat those contentions in court, then
retract some years later. Whatever happened in those fleeting moments,
the encounter would lead to Emmett’s kidnapping and murder and the
mutilation of his body four days later in a crime that would shake the
nation and galvanize the nascent civil rights movement.
Simeon Wright was only 12 at the time. He was sharing his bed with
Emmett the night of Aug. 27 when two white men — Carolyn Bryant’s
husband, Roy, and his half brother, J. W. Milam — abducted Emmett at
It was Simeon who identified Emmett’s ring for the police a few days
later, after his cousin’s beaten body, one eye gouged out, had been
fished from the Tallahatchie River, weighted down with a 75-pound cotton
gin fan tethered to his neck with barbed wire.
And it was Mr. Wright who five decades later would donate a sample of
his DNA, helping federal prosecutors prove that the disfigured body —
the one the nation saw in shocking photographs of the open coffin — was
Emmett’s. (The defendants had claimed they could not be convicted
because the victim was never conclusively identified.)
Simeon Wright, who fled Mississippi with his parents and siblings after
the not-guilty verdict, died on Monday in Countryside, Ill., a Chicago
suburb. He was 74. His family said the cause was complications of bone
Six decades after leaving the South, still haunted by the murder, Mr.
Wright belatedly became a keeper of his cousin’s legacy.
“Our world was never the same after that,” he told The New York Times in
The aroma of honeysuckle every summer would remind him of his boyhood
home. The rumbling of an automobile evoked his sleeplessness in the bed
from which his cousin had been kidnapped.
“I lay there that night,” Mr. Wright recalled in an oral history
interview in 2011, “and every car that I would hear, I thought it was J.
W. Milam and Roy Bryant bringing Emmett back.”
Mr. Wright was the youngest of the group that took the family’s Ford
sedan to the store in Money, near Greenwood. His older brother Maurice
“Maurice sent me in behind Emmett to make sure that he didn’t say
anything that he shouldn’t, because he just didn’t know the ways of the
South,” Mr. Wright recalled in the oral history, made for the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture by
the Southern Oral History Program.
Only Mrs. Bryant knows what Emmett said to her before Simeon went into
the store to retrieve him. Emmett may have violated a taboo in the Jim
Crow South by placing his money directly in her hand instead of on the
counter. By all accounts, though, he did not grab her.
Mrs. Bryant testified at the trial of Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam that
Emmett had physically menaced her. But earlier this year, Mrs. Bryant
(now Carolyn Bryant Donham) retracted that part of her testimony in the
book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” by Timothy B. Tyson. By Mr. Wright’s
account, Mrs. Bryant soon afterward left the store and, as she walked to
her car, Emmett whistled at her suggestively.
“To this day I don’t know what possessed Emmett to do that,” Mr. Wright
was quoted as saying in the Tyson book.
“It scared us half to death,” he told Chicago Magazine in 2009. “We were
almost in shock. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough, because we
had never heard of anything like that before. A black boy whistling at a
white woman? In Mississippi? No.”
The next evening, as Mr. Wright recalled in “Simeon’s Story: The
Kidnapping of Emmett Till” (2010), which he wrote with Herb Boyd, “a
girl who lived nearby told us she had heard about what happened in Money
and that trouble was brewing. ‘I know the Bryants, and they are not
going to forget what happened,’ she warned us.”
When nothing happened for a few days, the boys relaxed. Until that weekend.
“When I opened my eyes, I saw two white men at the foot of my bed,” Mr.
Wright told The Chicago Tribune in 2014. “One had a flashlight and a gun.”
As the men roused Emmett, Simeon’s mother pleaded with them and even
offered them money to leave Emmett alone.
“Roy kind of hesitated when they heard ‘money,’ you know, but J. W.
Milam, he didn’t hesitate at all,” Mr. Wright said in the Smithsonian
interview. “And before he left my bedroom, he asked my daddy how old was
he. Of course, at the time, my daddy told him he was 64. And J. W. said
that if you tell anybody about this, you won’t live to get 65. And they
marched Emmett out. Emmett didn’t say one word.”
An all-white jury found Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milan not guilty. A few
months after the murder, knowing they could not be prosecuted again,
they confessed to the crime in a paid interview with Look magazine. Mr.
Milam died in 1980, Mr. Bryant in 1994. No new charges have been filed
since federal prosecutors opened their investigation more than a decade ago.
Moses Wright, Simeon’s father and Emmett’s great-uncle, was a pacifist
who had been jailed for refusing to register for the draft in World War
I. But he bravely testified when Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam were tried for
“For every courageous black man willing to speak out against the
circumstances we faced,” Simeon Wright wrote in his book, alluding to
his father, “hundreds of white men were willing and able to make sure he
paid the ultimate price.”
Simeon Brown Wright was born on Oct. 15, 1942, in Doddsville, in
northwestern Mississippi. His father was a sharecropper and circuit
preacher who became a nightclub custodian in the mid-1950s after the
family moved to the Chicago suburbs. His mother, the former Elizabeth
Smith, the granddaughter of a white slave owner, taught school.
Mr. Wright was the last of the couple’s eight children (his father had
four others from a previous marriage) in a family that would be
fractured by Emmett’s murder.
Mr. Wright had never reconciled himself to segregation or racial slurs,
he said, ever since his mother cautioned him that his familiarity with a
childhood friend, Tommy Peterson, the son of a white plantation owner,
could not endure.
“My mother told me that when Tommy became a man, I would have to call
him mister,” Mr. Wright wrote. “But he would never have to call me that.
We were the same age, and I made up my mind then and there that I would
never call him Mister. This was one of my first real reactions to Jim Crow.”
After Emmett was murdered, Mr. Wright added, “for the first time in my
life, I thought about shooting a gun at another person.”
As a teenager he repeatedly engaged in fistfights with bullying white
teenagers. After graduating from high school in Argo, Ill., he joined
the Army, then experienced a religious conversion in his early 20s. He
enrolled in a union apprenticeship program for pipe fitters at Reynolds
Metals, married his high school sweetheart, and became a deacon in the
Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in Cook County, Ill.
His survivors include his wife, the former Annie Cole; a sister and
Mr. Wright cooperated with Kevin Beauchamp in a 2005 documentary about
the case and wrote his book, he said, to set the record straight. He
denied, for example, reports that the boys had taunted Emmett, whose
nickname was Bobo, and egged him on to flirt with Mrs. Bryant.
Mr. Wright long harbored second thoughts about his not telling his
father immediately afterward about what had happened at Bryant’s store.
Emmett feared he would be sent home from vacation.
“If I 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,” Mr. Wright told
Devery Anderson, the author of “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the
World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement” (2015).
A more philosophical Mr. Wright praised federal civil rights laws, and
while he said “laws can’t change a man’s heart,” his view of the jury’s
1955 verdict no longer involved vengeance.
“I think it goes all the way back to the Civil War, where these men lost
a way of life, and they blame me because I’m black,” he said in the oral
history interview. “I mean, they were the aristocrats of America, and
they lost that. And from that, that hatred began to fester, and it’s
been passed on down through the generations. Because the kids, they’re
not born with that. Someone has to teach them that.”
Just as he had been taught to forgive, Mr. Wright said.
“You don’t seek vengeance now; you just seek justice,” he said. “That’s
what I mean by forgiveness. I’m going to leave vengeance to Almighty God
and justice to the government.”
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