Emmett Till's Casket Goes to the Smithsonian- page 2 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Simeon Wright, 67, is Emmett Till's cousin and was with him the night Till was kidnapped and murdered. (M. Spencer Green / AP Images)

Emmett Till's Casket Goes to the Smithsonian

Simeon Wright recalls the events surrounding his cousin's murder and the importance of having the casket on public display

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(Continued from page 1)

How did you find out about the casket?
A radio personality called me about six in the morning asking me questions about it. They were on top of what was going on at the cemetery. I told him what was supposed to happen to the casket. He kept asking me questions and I said "Wait a minute, let me go out there and check and see. I don't know what's going on. Let me go out to cemetery and get some answers, find out what's going on out there." That's when I saw the casket sitting in the shed deteriorating. The last time my cousin saw the casket it was inside of the building, preserved. We don't know who moved it out into the shed but I got a chance to see it, it was just horrible the way they had discarded it like that without even notifying us. They could have called the family, but they didn't.

Why did you decide to donate the casket to the Smithsonian?
Donating it to the Smithsonian was beyond our wildest dreams. We had no idea that it would go that high. We wanted to preserve it, we wanted to donate it to a civil rights museum. Smithsonian, I mean that's the top of the line. It didn't even cross our mind that it would go there, but when they expressed interested an in it, we was overjoyed. I mean, people are going to come from all over the world. And they're going to view this casket, and they're going to ask questions. "What's the purpose of it?" And then their mothers or fathers or a curator, whoever is leading them through the museum, they'll begin to explain to them the story, what happened to Emmett. What he did in Mississippi and how it cost him his life. And how a racist jury knew that these men were guilty, but then they go free. They'll get a chance to hear the story, then they'll be able to... perhaps, a lot of these young kids perhaps, they will dedicate their lives to law enforcement or something like that. They will go out and do their best to help the little guys that can't help themselves. Because in Mississippi, in 1955, we had no one to help us, not even the law enforcement. No one to help us. I hope that this will inspire our younger generation to be helpers to one another.

What feelings do you experience when you see the casket today?
I see something that held the object of a mother's unconditional love. And then I see a love that was interrupted and shattered by racial hatred without a cause. It brings back memories that some would like to forget, but to forget is to deny life itself. For as you grow older, you are going to find out life is laced with memories. You're going to talk about the good old days. When you get 50, you're going to talk about your teenage days. You're going to listen to music from the teenage days. You don't have to believe me, just trust me on that. I'm not talking about what I read in a book. I'm talking about what I've experienced already. Also, it brings to our memories where we have been and where we are now and where we're going. People look at this casket and say, "You mean to tell me this happened in America?" And we will have a part of the artifacts from that era to prove to them that things like this went on in America. Just like the Civil War. By histories of the Civil War. Even today, it seems impossible to me that the Civil War took place in America. Here you have white fathers and sons fighting against each other. Mothers and daughters fighting against each other because one felt that slavery was wrong and one felt that it was all right. And they began to kill each over that. That's hard for me to believe but I see the statues. I see the statues of the solders, the Union soldiers and the Confederate soldiers, and it just helps us to believe the past. This casket's going to help millions to understand and believe that racism, the Jim Crow system, was alive and well in America back in 1955.

What is your hope for the casket?
Well, I hope, I know one thing, it's going to speak louder than pictures, books or films because this casket is the very image of what has been written or displayed on these pictures. I hope it's going to make people think "If I had been there in 1955, I would have done all I could to help that family." If it could just evoke just that one thought in someone, it would be enough, because then they would go out and help their fellow man, their community and the church and the school, wherever. We have, you know, I just had a couple of months ago a young man, 14 years of age, committed suicide because of bullies in his school. If it could just evoke that one emotion, that "if I had been there, I would have helped you." That's all I want.

In what ways do you feel that Emmett's story is still relevant today?
You know, it's amazing that he is still relevant. Like I said at the beginning, the reason is because of the jury's verdict. If the jury's verdict had come in guilty, Emmett would have been forgotten about. But [Emmett's story] shows people that if we allow lawlessness to go on, if we do nothing to punish those who break the law, then it's going to get worse. It's going to get worse. And we can look back and say, look what happened to Emmett. He was murdered for no reason, and those in charge did nothing about it. Wherever you have that, whatever city you have that in, it could be in Washington, it could be in New York, where you have murder and crime going on and the people do nothing about it, it's going to increase and destroy your society.

Wright's book, Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till (Lawrence Hill Books) will be released in January 2010.

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