Bearing Witness | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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Bearing Witness

After decades of silence, Simeon Wright finally recounts the night his cousin Emmett Till was martyred.


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Simeon Wright is a retired pipe fitter living in west suburban Summit Argo. He's a church deacon and a happily married man. He also has a place in history, though he's not proud of the reason.

Wright was a witness to the encounter that led to the 1955 lynching death of his cousin, Emmett Till, a tragedy that galvanized the civil rights movement. He was in bed next to Till—whom the family called Bobo—the night he was kidnapped.

Till, who was from Chicago, was 14 when his mother, Mamie, sent him down to Money, Mississippi, for a visit with her uncle Moses Wright and his family. One evening he and a group including Simeon went into town for a trip to the white-owned Bryant's Grocery. Accounts still vary as to what happened: some say Till whistled at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant; some that he told her "Bye, baby" when leaving the store; some that he took her hand and asked her for a date. Carolyn herself later claimed that Till had grabbed her and put his arms around her.

Four days later she, her husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, turned up at the Wright house in the middle of the night and took Till away, the two men threatening Moses with death if he told anyone. Three days after that, Till's mutilated body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River.

Simeon was 12 then. Now he's 67. For years he tried to stifle the memory and flat-out refused to talk about it, even to his wife, Annie. But it wouldn't go away, and it has finally come out in the form of a book: Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till, cowritten with New York journalist Herb Boyd and published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. The book is about more than that terrible day. It's also about a man who could've stayed angry his entire life but found a way not to.

"Every time I'd see a film or read an article about it, I'd get upset," Simeon says, sipping coffee at a Starbucks near his house, wearing a Mount Rushmore souvenir cap and a green windbreaker. After the trial resulted in the acquittal of both men charged, despite the brave testimony of his father, Wright and his family had been crushed. "I was enraged and embittered by the verdict," he writes. "What made it worse were the shouts of victory, glee, and sheer joy coming from the whites inside and outside of the courtroom."

The family abandoned their farm and moved north to what was then known as Argo, after the town's corn starch refinery. Simeon grew into a tough young man who didn't walk away from a fight with anyone white.

"You know, hate is a strong word," he says, carefully. "I grew up with a chip on my shoulder. I was going to fight back. I had that chip until the age of 24. I knew those white boys would call me the N word, and all I did was wait for them to say it."

After graduating from high school in 1962, Simeon went through the apprentice program at Reynolds Aluminum in McCook, Illinois. He didn't take part in the civil rights movement. "While I sincerely believed in Dr. King's goals, I didn't agree with his nonviolent strategy at the time," he writes. "If somebody hit me, I was going to hit him back. I remember being simply amazed to see footage on television of black people being pulled from their cars and beaten during civil rights marches. . . . I would have run over every one of those whites before I allowed them to pull me from my car."

He met Annie in 1964, and they started dating. To her he seemed well-adjusted, regular. But mentally he was struggling.

"I was dreaming that I'd be shot," he says. "And I don't believe in slipups. If you have a premonition you've got to change your ways."

That's when Simeon had a talk with God. He says the spirit came upon him while he was drunk. "The voice said, 'If you die in your sins you're going to hell,'" he says. "That next night I told my friends, 'Boys, I'm going to church.' I went to a church on the south side, near 73rd and Chappelle, and I committed myself to Christ."

After he heard the voice he stopped dating Annie, choosing to give himself over to the faith. But she waited patiently, and started going to church too. They married in 1971 and, he writes in his book, "are still together and madly in love."

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