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Jewish World Review June 20, 2005 / 13 Sivan, 5765

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Emmett Till and a Legacy of Grace


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | ALSIP, Ill. — In a cemetery here, a few miles southwest of Chicago's city limits, Simeon Wright, 62, a trim, articulate semiretired pipe fitter, and a deacon of the Church of God in Christ, recently attended a ceremony at an unquiet grave. The gravestone has a weatherproof locket with a photograph of a boy, and these carved words:

Emmett L. Till

In loving memory

July 25, 1941 August 28, 1955

Wright participated in a service for the reinterment of the body of the boy with whom Wright, then 12, was sharing a bed in the Mississippi home of Wright's father 50 years ago. It was the night that ignited the fuse of the civil rights revolution.

The eulogy delivered at the reinterment — Emmett's remains had been exhumed as part of the reopened investigation of his murder — was by Wheeler Parker, a barber and minister in nearby Argo. The night of Aug. 28, 1955, Parker, then 16, also was sleeping in the Wright home. Two white men, one with a .45-caliber pistol, shone a flashlight in Parker's face and one of them said, "Where's the fat boy from Chicago?"

A few weeks before, Wright's father, a preacher in the vicinity of Money, Miss., had come to Chicago to deliver a eulogy for a former parishioner, one of the hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians of the great migration — an $11, 16-hour ride on the Illinois Central to Chicago. A week or so later, Mamie Till — Emmett's mother — put Emmett on the Illinois Central to visit his great uncle and his cousin Simeon.

Three days into his visit, at ramshackle Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, Emmett, 14, whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Three nights later, her husband, Roy, and his half brother J.W. Milam came for Emmett. Simeon's father pleaded, "Why not give the boy a whipping and leave it at that?" They beat him to an unrecognizable pulp, knocked out his right eye, shot him, tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Mississippi authorities had made the Chicago undertaker agree to keep Emmett's casket nailed closed, but they met their match in his mother. An estimated 50,000 Chicagoans saw the body in the open casket. Jet magazine ran a picture. "When people saw what had happened to my son," Mamie Till said, "men stood up who had never stood up before." And one woman refused to stand up: 69 days after the acquittal of Emmett's murderers and 300 miles away, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus.

Twenty-six days after murdering Emmett, Bryant and Milam were acquitted by a jury that waited 67 minutes, a juror said, to "drink a pop" before embracing the defense argument that the body might not have been Emmett's. Bryant and Milam later told Look magazine that they killed Emmett. They said they took turns smashing him across the head with the .45. But the trial was the first event to turn the gaze of American journalism to the causes of the coming civil rights storm.

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A week after the acquittal, Simeon Wright's father, who testified against Bryant and Milam, left his car at the railroad station and went to Chicago. He never returned to Mississippi.

Others besides Bryant and Milam, both dead, may have been complicit in the killing. But beyond DNA proof that it was Emmett's body, it is unclear what forensic evidence his remains might provide to the Mississippi district attorney who sought the disinterment.

Martin Luther King came to Chicago in January 1966, but Simeon Wright says: "I didn't qualify for Dr. King's march. They told us that if bricks and things were thrown at us, we couldn't retaliate. I couldn't do that. . . . Now I'm back to what he was teaching."

Wright says that friends who only recently discovered his connection with the Till case say, "He's so easygoing!" He says, "I guess they think I'd be angry all the time. You don't live long that way." At the reinterment, he recited the first verse to "Taps," which concludes: "All is well, safely rest, G-d is nigh." He says, "It got a little emotional then."

Where do they come from, people like Simeon Wright, people of such resilience and grace? From Mississippi and Illinois. And everywhere else. They are all around us.

What has this country done — what can any country do — to deserve such people? Wrong question. They are this country.

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