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Emmett Till’s cousin remembers what happened on the night of Till’s abduction

Stories like Emmett Till’s are entrenched in American history. His death lit an important fire to the jolt of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Growing up, I learned details of Till’s life and death, and its impact, which most do not get to experience.

This week, you’ll get the “INside story” from Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin, and from Dan Wakefield, an Indianapolis native and award-winning writer and journalist. They painted a much-needed, vivid picture that still rings impactful nearly 70 years later.

(WISH) — Emmett Till, 14, his cousin, Wheeler Parker Jr., 16, and the rest of their cousins quickly went home after the whistling incident at Bryant’s grocer. Parker says he does not think Emmett meant any harm with his whistle.

“He loved to make people laugh. I don’t know what provoked him to do it. But he did it. And that’s why they didn’t want him to go, though, they knew he didn’t know the South and southern laws,” Parker said.

A day passed.

Emmett asked Parker and the rest of the boys not to tell their grandfather, Mose Wright, what happened at the store. All of the boys obliged and also relinquished their worries.

“We were free. It was over with as soon we left the store. He didn’t rape her. He didn’t touch her. It was over, as far as we were concerned,” Parker said.

August 27, 1955

On Saturdays, it was popular for people, especially young people, to go from smaller outlier towns to the “big city” of Greenwood, Mississippi.

“People came from everywhere…and they met in Greenwood. The theatre was there, buying hot dogs,” Parker said. “We stayed there for a little, then we went to one of those juke joints. By 12:00 a.m., we headed home. My Uncle Maurice was driving. He hit a dog. Emmett was crying because he hit the dog.”

August 28, 1955

“We got home about midnight. At about 2:30 a.m., I hear these guys talking. My grandfather was on a former landowner’s home,” Parker said. “Big, screened-in porch all the way across. Living large. Four big bedrooms. No hallways. One behind another. They are talking about this ‘fat boy.’ They said ‘we want to talk to you about that fat boy that did the talking at the store.’ I said, ‘Wow, God, we are getting ready to die.’ Because I knew all the stories.”

Parker is referring to the brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Bryant and his wife, Carolyn, were the owners of the store where Emmett’s whistling incident happened.

Courtesy of Florida State University Emmett Till Archives

“These guys were renegades. They were thugs, for lack of a better word. I am shaking like a leaf on a tree. I said, ‘If you just let me live, I will do right,’” Parker said. “My grandfather didn’t know what room he was in. I was on the front, off the screen porch. I could see them coming my way. Down south, when the moon didn’t shine, you could literally not see your hand in front of your face.”

As he scratched his eyes, Parker could hear Bryant and Milam coming his way.

“They were walking with a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other, coming toward me. I am waiting to be shot. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, they were passing by me to the third room,” Parker said. “They aroused Emmett from the third room. They had him get up. He wanted to put his socks on. It was pure hell. It was terrible.”

Parker described the kidnapping of Till as a night of chaos.

“You had no control. These guys, he wasn’t complying like they thought he should. If he was born and raised there, he would have done better. He was taking his time,” Parker said. “They took him and told us they would bring him back if he wasn’t ‘the one.’ My grandmother ran next door to get the white man to come help; he didn’t come. “

A night of terror is how Parker described that night, which forever lives in the minds that were there. Parker said his grandfather, Mose Wright, Emmet’s great uncle, was put in one of the worst positions a caretaker could be put in.

“It was time to be terrified. Especially my grandmother and grandfather. They had been entrusted with someone’s child. You are fixing to lose a child. He was in a horrible position. I wonder often, how did he feel, letting someone come and take him and torture him like that,” Parker said. “Grandma and papa left. She couldn’t stay. He had to take her. They left us there. Nobody said anything to anybody. I got up, said they were coming back. I put my shoes on. I said, ‘I am headed to the woods.’ It seemed like daylight would never come.”

Even nearly 70 years later, Parker still remembers the feeling of that night. Thinking of Emmett and his grandfather, it is a night Parker said he will never forget.

“He had no idea. I don’t know what went through that boy’s mind. I try to imagine and picture how did he feel with them taking him with papa standing there? They said they were going to bring him back if he wasn’t ‘the one,’” Parker said. “When they [Bryant, Milam and Emmett] got out to the car, papa said he heard a light voice say, ‘He is the one.’”

This is the second of a five-part series discussing the murder of Till and his impact on American history.