The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Six decades after the murder of Emmett Till, the cousin who saw him last dies at 74

On a warm August night in 1955, Simeon Wright woke to the sound of unfamiliar voices. Opening his eyes, he found two white men standing at the foot of his bed, holding a flashlight and gun.

They were after Wright’s cousin — 14-year-old Emmett Till — who was still asleep beside him but would soon be kidnapped, brutally murdered and dumped into a river.

It was memories of that historically infamous night that Wright, who died on Monday, quietly carried with him until publishing his firsthand account in a 2010 book. Wright died on Monday morning from complications from bone cancer at his home in Countryside, Ill., according to the Chicago Tribune. He was 74 and is survived by his wife and extended family.

Wright was 12 years old and living in Money, Miss., when his cousin visited from Chicago in the summer of 1955. He was there for the moments of that visit that would transform Till from an innocent teenager to the face of Southern Jim Crow violence and brutality throughout the civil rights era, down to this day.

The two were together when Till allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, at the convenience store she owned with her husband, Roy. Wright said Till was “always joking around” and was likely trying to get a laugh out of his cousins. But the whistle struck Wright, who feared the overwhelming presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, to the core. Chicago magazine quoted Wright as saying the joke “scared us half to death … A black boy whistling at a white woman? In Mississippi? No.”

The group promised not to tell Wright’s father about the incident, expecting that he would rush Till out of town if he ever found out.

But it was at 2 a.m. on Aug. 28 that Roy Bryant and his half brother, J.W. Milam, arrived at the Wrights’ home. They snatched Till from the bed he shared with Wright. Till’s beaten body was later found in the Tallahatchie River, along with a 75-pound cotton-gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.

The horrific scene became an instant symbol of racial violence. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, arranged for her son’s body to be on display at the funeral, allowing photographers to capture lasting images of an anguished mother and her mutilated child.

Bryant and Milam went on trial for murder, with Wright’s father even identifying them in court. But they were acquitted by an all-white jury, despite later confessing to the crime in Look magazine.

The Wrights soon left Mississippi for the Chicago suburbs. As recounted in Chicago magazine, Wright got into plenty of fights after the move. He wasn’t meek in the face of slurs from white boys. Still, he graduated from Argo High School in 1962 and worked as a pipe fitter, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In his 20s, Wright found a kind of comfort in Christianity, even forgiving his cousin’s killers. Later in life he was a deacon in the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, according to Chicago magazine. The church was pastored by Till’s cousin and founded by his maternal grandmother.

In a Chicago Tribune obituary, Wright’s wife, Annie Wright, said her husband “got through it with the Lord’s help,” adding that he focused his energy on mentoring young boys and teaching them how to navigate life’s setbacks.

Even with his newfound spirituality, Wright said he was haunted by historical inaccuracies surrounding Till’s death. His co-authored book, “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till,” aims to clarify eyewitness accounts and other reports that lived on decades after the lynching, including the fact that Till’s wallet did not contain a photo of a white girl and that Till did not address Bryant on a dare.

The book was also an eloquent, albeit chilling, recounting of life for a young black man in the Jim Crow era.

“Any black person brave enough to violate this system,” he writes, “was immediately confronted by angry white men, usually with murder on their minds. There was nothing more feared in the South than one of those lynch mobs, which was invariably protected by the sheriff and his deputies — when they weren’t part of the mob themselves. For every courageous black man willing to speak out against the circumstances we faced, hundreds of white men were willing and able to make sure he paid the ultimate price.”

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