CHICAGO – Simeon Wright, who was with his cousin Emmett Till when the Chicago boy was kidnapped in 1955 after whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, has died. He was 74.
Till, who was 14, spent the summer of 1955 visiting relatives in Mississippi and was kidnapped, tortured and killed after whistling at a white woman working at a store in the rural hamlet of Money. His death galvanized the civil rights movement when his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago to show the world her son's mutilated body.
Wright's cousin, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, said Tuesday that Wright died of cancer Monday at his Chicago-area home. Wright described Till as a "fun-loving guy," and said he witnessed his cousin whistle at Carolyn Bryant as a group of boys left Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market after buying snacks on Aug. 24, 1955.
"It scared us half to death," Wright recalled at the University of Mississippi in October 2010. "Some said, 'Why'd he do it?' I said, I think he just wanted us to laugh. He wasn't trying to be fresh. He just wanted to let the boys in Mississippi know, 'Hey, I'm from Chicago. I can do this. I'm not afraid.' He had no idea what was going to happen."
Wright, who was 12, was sharing a bed with Till on Aug. 28, 1955, when he saw J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant come into his family's home with pistols and kidnap Till. Roy Bryant was married to Carolyn Bryant, and Milam was his half brother. An all-white Mississippi jury acquitted the two men in Till's death, but they later confessed in a magazine interview.
Wright said the verdict was unjust.
"So if you ever get on a jury, if the evidence is there, regardless of what color the person is, do the right thing," Wright said in 2010. "If they had done the right thing back in 1955, we would've forgotten about Emmett right now. But the verdict enraged everybody."
Wright's wife, Annie Wright, told the Chicago Tribune her husband lived quietly in suburban Chicago for much of his life, but in the 2000s he became more vocal about Till. Wright published a book, "Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till," including a chapter on the night Till was abducted.
"He really wanted people to know what happened that night," Annie Wright said. "There were so many versions. When I first met him, he never talked about it. But then he wanted people to know the injustices and indignities."
At the University of Mississippi in 2010, Wright recalled that his own mother cried and pleaded with the men not to take Till.
"I just can't describe it," Wright said. "It's a night I'll never forget. Yet, I'm not bitter."
Wright said he found comfort in his Christian faith and realized when he was in his 20s that "hatred would kill you or get you killed."
This version of the story corrects in first paragraph that Wright was with Till when Till was kidnapped, but not when he was killed. ___
Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Mississippi.