In 1955, Emmett Till—a 14-year-old African-American visiting Mississippi from Chicago—was murdered after whistling at a white woman. His mother insisted that her son be displayed in a glass-topped casket, so the world could see his beaten body. Till's murder became a rallying point for the civil rights movement, and his family recently donated the casket in which he was buried to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Till's cousin Simeon Wright, 67, who was with him the night he was kidnapped and murdered, spoke with the magazine's Abby Callard.
From This Story
What was Emmett like?
He loved to tell jokes and loved for people to tell him jokes. In school, he might pull the fire alarm just to get out of class. To him that would be funny. We found out that what was dangerous to us was funny to him. He really had no sense of danger.
What happened at the store between Emmett and Carolyn Bryant has been debated, what do you remember happening?
We went to the store that night. My nephew that came down from Chicago with Emmett went into the store first, and Emmett went in the store after him. So Wheeler came out, and Maurice sent me inside the store to be with him to make sure he didn't say anything out of line. There was about less than a minute that he was in there by himself. During that time I don't know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her. He didn't have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn't put his arms around her or anything like that. While I was in there he said nothing. But, after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That's what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.
Because he was from Chicago, do you think Emmett's unfamiliarity with the South during the Jim Crow era contributed to what happened?
It could have been the reason he did it, because he was warned not to do anything like that, how he was supposed to act. I think what he did was trying to impress us. He said, "You guys might be afraid to do something like this, but not me." Another thing. He really didn't know the danger. He had no idea how dangerous that was; because when he saw our reaction, he got scared too.
You were in the same bed as Emmett when the two men came for him, right?
Yes, when they came that night, that Sunday morning, he and I were in the same bed. I was the first one to wake up because I heard the noise and the loud talking. The men made me lie back down and ordered Emmett to get up and put his clothes on. During that time, I had no idea what was going on. Pretty soon, my mother came in there pleading with them not to take Emmett. At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea but J.W. Milam, he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, he wouldn't hear of it. He continued to have Emmett put his clothes on. Then, after Emmett was dressed, they marched him out of the house into a truck that was waiting outside. When they got out to the truck, they asked the person inside the truck, "Was this the right boy." A lady's voice responded that it was.
You attended the trial. Were you at all surprised that the murderers were acquitted?
I was shocked. I was expecting a verdict of guilty. I'm still shocked. I believe sincerely that if they had convicted those men 54 years ago that Emmett's story wouldn't have been in the headlines. We'd have forgotten about it by now.
Your family left Mississippi after the trial, right?
My mother left the same night [he was taken]. She left that house, she didn't leave Mississippi, she left that house and went to a place called Sumner, where they had the trial. Her brother lived in Sumner, and she stayed there until his body was found. She was on the same train that his body was going back to Chicago. We left, my dad and my two brothers, left the Saturday, the Monday after the verdict. The verdict came in on a Friday, I believe, that Monday we were on a train headed to Chicago.
Why did you leave?
My mother was, she was so scared and there was no way that my dad was going to be able to live there anymore. After the verdict, my dad was so disappointed. He had had enough of Mississippi. He had heard of things like this happening to African Americans, but nothing had ever happened to him like that—firsthand victim of racism, and the Jim Crow system. He said that was enough. He just didn't want no part of Mississippi anymore.
How did you and the rest of your family feel about Emmett's mother's decision to hold the funeral with an open casket?
Well, an open casket is a common thing in African American tradition. But one of the reasons they didn't want her to open the casket was because of the stench, because of the smell. They designed the casket with the glass over it and what not. She said it herself, she wanted to world to see what those men had done to her son because no one would have believed it if they didn't the picture or didn't see the casket. No one would have believed it. And when they saw what happened, this motivated a lot of people that were standing, what we call "on the fence," against racism. It encouraged them to get in the fight and do something about it. That's why many say that that was the beginning of the civil rights era. From experience, you can add, what they mean by that is we was always as a people, African Americans, was fighting for our civil rights, but now we had the whole nation behind us. We had whites, we had Jews, Italians, Irishmen jumping in the fight, saying that racism was wrong.
How did the casket become available?
In 2005, we had to exhume Emmett's body. The State of Mississippi would not reopen the case unless we could prove that the body buried at the cemetery was Emmett's. State law prohibited us from placing that casket back into the grave, so we had to bury him in a new casket. We set this casket aside to preserve it because the cemetery was planning on making a memorial for Emmett and his mother. They was going to move his mother and have the casket on display. But you see what happened, someone took the money and discarded the casket in the shed.