Obituaries

Simeon Wright, 74, witnessed Emmett Till kidnapping

Simeon Wright, a cousin of lynching victim Emmett Till, spoke during a 2009 news conference in Chicago.
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press/File
Simeon Wright, a cousin of lynching victim Emmett Till, spoke during a 2009 news conference in Chicago.

WASHINGTON — ‘‘Certain sounds bring it back,’’ Simeon Wright once told an interviewer, recalling the August night in 1955 when his 14-year-old cousin Emmett Till was kidnapped from the bed they shared, tortured, shot, and submerged in the Tallahatchie River of Mississippi. ‘‘Certain smells. Honeysuckle smell. Because honeysuckle was blooming that summer.’’

Mr. Wright, who died Monday at 74, was — besides his cousin’s killers — one of the last people to see Till alive. In the years that followed, Mr. Wright became a key witness in the lynching — an event that helped spark the civil rights movement after Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted that her son’s mutilated remains be displayed before the public in an open casket.

Mr. Wright’s death was confirmed by Marvel Parker, the wife of his nephew Wheeler Parker Jr., who also was sleeping in the home the night of Till’s abduction. Marvel Parker said Mr. Wright died at his home in Countryside, Ill., and the cause was cancer.

Advertisement

Mr. Wright had been with Till days before his kidnapping, during a visit to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Miss., where Till stopped to buy bubble gum. In accounts of the lynching, it was widely said that Till wolf-whistled at the proprietress, Carolyn Bryant, on his way out.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Till, who lived in Chicago and was visiting relatives in Mississippi, was unschooled in the racial mores of the Jim Crow South — and the violence that any perceived violation might provoke. Mr. Wright, a local sharecropper’s son who was two years younger, said he knew immediately upon hearing Till’s whistle that his cousin was in danger.

‘‘It scared us half to death,’’ Mr. Wright 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.’’

According to Mr. Wright, Till begged his cousin and their companions not to tell Moses Wright, Simeon’s father, what had happened at the store. They acquiesced to Till’s request, certain that Moses Wright would send Till home to Chicago for his safety if he learned of the encounter. The boys did not wish to lose their summer together.

The men charged in Till’s murder were Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam. Moses Wright risked his life by identifying the defendants in the courtroom.

Advertisement

‘‘When I opened my eyes, I saw two white men at the foot of my bed. One had a flashlight and a gun,’’ Simeon Wright told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. ‘‘Emmett was still sleeping. They had to shake him to wake him up.’’

Despite the eyewitness testimony, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury, only to then confess to the murder in a paid interview with Look magazine.

Carolyn Bryant, for her part, was in her 70s when she agreed to be interviewed by a Duke University professor, Timothy Tyson, after years of silence.

‘‘Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,’’ she told Tyson for his 2017 book ‘‘The Blood of Emmett Till.’’

Simeon Brown Wright was born in Doddsville, Miss., on Oct. 15, 1942. But he would spend most of his life in the Chicago area, where his father moved the family after the trial, and where Wright made a livelihood as a pipe-fitter.

Advertisement

Mr. Wright, who became a deacon, said he found peace in his Christian faith.

Mr. Wright said in his memoir he was particularly disturbed by the agonizing questions of what might have been if their group hadn’t gone shopping or if they had told an adult of Emmett’s encounter.

‘‘I couldn’t shake the many thoughts of him,’’ he wrote. ‘‘What if we had stayed home that night? What if we had told Dad?’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.