INside Story

Trial witness speaks to Emmett Till’s legacy

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.

This is the fifth and final chapter discussing the murder of Till and his impact on American history.

(WISH) — After being acquitted of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam still faced kidnapping charges.

Sept. 30, 1955

Milam and Bryant are released on bond. Kidnapping charges were pending.

In the meantime, Moses (Mose) Wright and surprise witness Willie Reed leave Mississippi and are smuggled to Chicago. Wheeler Parker Jr., Till’s cousin, said tensions were high for everyone.

“She [Mamie Till] was very fearful. I told you she had a nervous breakdown when she came back home. Reed collapsed from a nervous breakdown,” Parker said.

Nov. 9, 1955

Returning to Mississippi one last time, Mose Wright and Willie Reed testify before a Leflore County grand jury in Greenwood, Mississippi. The grand jury refuses to indict Milam or Bryant for kidnapping.

The two white men go free.

“They went back for the kidnapping. That was chaos. How can you admit to kidnapping? How can you not follow up? They had their own laws. They had their own rules,” Parker said.

Award-winning journalist and writer Dan Wakefield was present for the entire trial in Mississippi.

Emmett Till is shown lying on his bed. (Getty Images)

“It was understood that Black people had no power. The fact that they would have been convicted, which was understood then, that would show that ‘our way of life is… we’re the superior people by some law of nature, and so we get to do whatever we want with the people who don’t look like us,’ that was just a general understanding.” Wakefield said.

As he reflects on Emmett’s life, Parker said his impact is evident.

“I hate to think of it like that but he did more in death than he would if he lived, I believe. Matter of fact, I am pretty sure of that,” Parker said.

1956

A year after Emmett’s death, Rosa Parks said, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn’t go back [to the back of the bus].”

2004

With new evidence and the identification of others who may have been involved, Emmett’s case was reopened by the Department of Justice in 2004.

2007

A majority-black grand jury in Greenwood, Mississippi declined to indict Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant Donham, considering charges ranging from manslaughter to accessory after the fact.

2017

Author and research scholar Timothy Tyson revealed in a 2007 interview Emmett Till’s that Bryant Donham admitted to him that she had lied about Till making advances toward her.

The interview was reported in a 2017 Vanity Fair article upon the publishing of Tyson’s book, “The Blood of Emmett Till.”

Bryant Donham’s estate later denied she [Carolyn] made any such admission.

2018

The Justice Department reopened the investigation into Till’s death with the “discovery of new information.”

December 2021

The federal investigation officially closes.

February 2022

The House overwhelmingly approved legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act would amend the U.S. Code to designate lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Now, nearly 70 years after Till’s death many more black lives have been cut too soon.

From Carole Jenkins, a young Black woman killed in Martinsville, Indiana in 1968 to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor George Floyd and Daunte Wright, lives continue to be lost.

Parker said he sees Emmett in many of their faces.

“It’s the same spirit that prevailed during Emmet’s time. You can’t help but think about it. 70 years ago it was photo, now its cell phone video,” Parker said. “Somebody spoke it years ago, a picture is worth a thousand words. We see it in that. If we didn’t have that, those thousand words would not have been spoken. Laws make people behave, but it doesn’t legislate the heart. People in America, they started behaving because these people will prosecute you. Look what they did to Milam and Bryant. Then in Georgia with Ahmaud Arbery, they will prosecute you. That don’t change their spirit now. That doesn’t change their attitude but that makes them behave better.”

Wakefield said Emmett’s story and the America he witnessed and continues to witness amplifies the desperate need for understanding.

“Baldwin said a long time ago the only way this country could achieve its nation to become a nation was to bridge this gap. To understand we have suppressed the suppressed.” We have to keep trying – like a battering ram. Just don’t let up. From its backward,” Wakefield said. “Keep going we have to rescue our own country from its backwardness. From its prejudice that is so deep. I don’t know anyone who would say they were prejudiced. But I only know a few people who know our history.”

As social injustice continues to rear its head in the present day, Parker said the lessons that need to be learned won’t be learned unless people start grasping the root of behaviors.

“A lot of people say – well, all lives matter. They don’t understand and they didn’t grow up in the era I did, where as far as I’m concerned, black lives didn’t matter. If you violated the southern code you were gone. You could be killed,” Parker said. “A lot of black people died. Not just in Mississippi but in the south for no reason. All lives do matter they are important but they don’t understand when black lives weren’t worth a nickel in a sense.

Parker said he has the same mindset towards those responsible for Emmett’s death.

“Everybody reaps what they sow. Don’t hate. God says vengeance is mine. Nobody gets by. I want her [Carolyn Bryant Donham] to tell the truth you know? And it is still not too late,” Parker said. “He didn’t die in vain. That was his mother’s thing. ‘I hope you didn’t die in vain.’ He did not die in vain. Emmett still speaks from the grave.”

Epilogue

Many are hearing the spirit of Emmett Till loud and clear. That was evident by the progress of his namesake anti-lynching bill just this week.

For the first time since 1955, Wakefield recently ventured back to Mississippi to retrace his steps when he covered the trial.

As for Parker, he continues to inspire many and will be making a visit to Indianapolis in the fall. The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is co-creating an Emmett Till exhibit along with Parker and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center that will travel the country. It opens at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in September.

Another good resource for more information on Emmett Till is the Emmett Till Interpretive Center and their Emmett Till Memory Project.