Part 1 of 2 in a series
Filming for the a movie based on Mamie Till Mobley, who devoted her life to seeking justice for her son Emmett Till who was murdered in August 1955 for whistling at a white woman, continues in Greenwood, Carroll County, and Memphis, Tenn.
According to a story in The Commercial Appeal, ABC’s six-episode mini-series, “Women of the Movement,” is being produced by actor Will Smith and hip-hop artist and mogul Jay-Z, among others.
The production is bringing renewed interest in Till’s tragic murder and its significance as a catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement.
According to historical accounts, Till, who was just 14 at the time of his murder, traveled from his home in Chicago to visit his great uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, in Money, Mississippi, in August 1955. While visiting Bryant’s Grocery a few days after arriving, Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who owned the store with her husband Roy Bryant. Three days later, in the early morning hours of August 28, 1955, Roy Bryant and his brother, J.W. Milam, took Till from his uncle’s home. Till was beaten, tortured, and shot in the head. His body was later found in the Tallahatchie River.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, opted for an open casket at his funeral in Chicago so the world could see what was done to her son. Jet magazine, a national African American magazine, published a photograph of Till’s mutilated body, and the national media picked up the story.
Two weeks after Till’s murder, Bryant and Milam were prosecuted for the crime at the courthouse in Sumner. The jury handed down a “not guilty” verdict after deliberating for less than an hour.
In January 1956, the two men confessed guilt for Till’s murder to Look magazine’s William Bradford Huie, providing the journalist with details of what occurred after they took Till from his bed.
Carolyn Bryant recanted her original statement that Till grabbed her and made sexual advances at her to Duke University historian Tim Tyson, who revealed the admission in his book, The Blood of Emmett Till.
“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Bryant told Tyson.
According to many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, as reported in the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” Till’s tragic fate provided Black Americans courage to speak out and protest the injustice Blacks experienced in the Jim Crow South.
Wheeler Parker, Jr., 82, of Chicago, traveled with Till to Mississippi in August 1955 to stay with Parker’s grandfather, Mose Wright. Parker, 16 at the time, was with Till at Bryant’s Grocery, and he witnessed men take his cousin from the house on August 28. That same day, Parker was driven to the home of his uncle, William Parker, in Duck Hill to take the first train available back to Chicago and away from danger in Mississippi.
Born in Schlater in 1939, Parker and his family moved to Money a few years later. In 1947, his family went north to Chicago where jobs were plentiful.
“We moved because of economics,” Parker said. “Industry was hiring, and people were making as much as a school teacher. Five million people came to Chicago from the South.”
When his grandfather visited Chicago from Mississippi in the summer of 1955, Parker decided to return with him to help with the cotton harvest and spend time with his three uncles, Robert, 14, Simeon, 12, and Maurice, 16. When his cousin Emmett Till, known as Bobo to members of his family, heard of Parker’s trip, he insisted on accompanying him.
“I was like a sibling to him,” Parker said. “He was determined that he was going south with me and my grandfather.”
Parker explained that Till should have never visited Mississippi due to his gregarious nature and unfamiliarity with race relations in the South at that time. However, Till was determined, and his mother and great-uncle relented.
“[Emmett] should have never been in the South,” Parker said. “I was born down there, so I was indoctrinated in it. Emmett was a prankster and loved jokes, but he was very tenacious and very insistent.”
Staying at his grandfather’s home just over two miles from the town of Money in Leflore County, Parker, Till, and his uncles helped pick cotton “from can to cain’t, sun up to sun down.”
Three days after arriving, Parker, Till, and a few others drove into Money after finishing up in the field that day. Bryant’s Grocery was a popular spot for teenagers living in the area to play checkers, purchase treats, and meet up with friends.
“I went in [the store] to purchase some things,” Parker said. “At the time, it wasn’t like stores now, but everything was behind the counter, and you had to ask the clerk for what you wanted.”
Parker said after he left the store, Till went inside to buy candy.
“I remember thinking that I hope he would mind his manners,” Parker said. “Simeon went in, and only Emmett and he were inside the store.”
After Till and his cousin, Simeon, exited the store and joined their group, the female clerk, Carolyn Bryant, walked outside the store.
“Emmett did a wolf whistle – in 1955 -- and we made a beeline for the car,” Parker said.
Parker said his cousin did not know Mississippi’s Jim Crow laws or what was acceptable behavior for Blacks in Mississippi at that time. He remembered speeding away from the store and someone saying a vehicle was approaching from behind. The driver turned off the road, and the group leapt from the truck and ran into a nearby field, “cotton bolls hitting us in the legs as we ran.”
“Back then, we had no protection, whatsoever,” Parker said. “It was a helpless situation. I knew all of the stories. I knew we had no protection under the law.”
Eventually, the boys made their way back to Wright’s house. Parker said they did not tell his grandfather what had happened at the store, and as one day passed into another, they felt Till’s actions were forgotten.
However, just after 2 a.m. on Sunday, August 28, 1955, two men came to Wright’s house. Parker said he woke to hear his grandfather and the men talking.
“They were asking about the ‘fat boy’ from Chicago,” Parker remembered.
Parker said the men knew exactly who they were looking for that morning.
The two men began checking the bedrooms in the house. Parker was sleeping in the first one along the hallway, and a man walked in, shined a light from a flashlight into his face, and held a gun in his other hand.
“I come from a very religious family,” Parker said. “I knew we were going to die. I was praying for God just to let me live. I was shaking, shaking so hard the bed was shaking. I was so scared.”
Emmett was sleeping in the room just two doors down, and the men forced him out of bed. Parker said even then, his cousin did not know that he needed to use “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as was expected.
“You can’t teach that overnight,” Parker said. “I had it, but Bobo didn’t have it.”
The two men left with Till, and that was the last time Parker saw his cousin.
Later that morning, his Uncle Maurice drove Parker to his paternal uncle’s home in Duck Hill. From there, he would take a train from Winona back to Chicago.
“I was terrified,” Parker said. “I didn’t sleep again until I got back to Chicago.”
Parker said at the time, his cousin’s whereabouts were still unknown, and he did not know if men from Money were looking for him as well.
Before dawn the next morning, Parker was on the train to Chicago. He remembered the train from Winona to Memphis being filled with soldiers, and that eased his anxiety and fear.
Three days later after Parker returned to Chicago, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River. His body was so badly damaged, his great uncle could not identify the body until he saw an initial ring Till always wore.
Prior to the discovery of the body, Parker said he knew he would never see his cousin again.
“In my heart, I just knew,” he said. “I never had sorrow. No grief. I was in a state of shock. [When they found him, I thought] this isn’t Emmett. I said I’ll see him again.”
Parker’s grandfather testified at the trial of Bryant and Milam, identifying the two men who took his great nephew from his bed in open court. At the time, a Black man accusing two White men of murder was unheard of at the time. However, Wright did take the stand.
Parker said he remembered hearing about his grandfather sleeping in the cemetery one night after men were seen outside his home. But Wright had the courage to testify in court.
Another Black man, Willie Reed also testified against Bryant and Milam. Only 18 years old at the time, Reed testified that he saw the two men with Till in the back of their truck.
“They stayed [in Mississippi] until the trial was over,” Parker said. “[My grandfather] knew it wasn’t safe.”
After the acquittal, Mamie Till Mobley returned to Chicago. Reed also fled Mississippi and headed north to Chicago. Parker said his grandfather was smuggled north thanks to the help of Medgar Evers, the head of the NAACP in Mississippi.
“Emmett’s mother was scared every day in the courthouse,” Parker said.
He said Reed, who changed his last name to Louis, suffered a nervous breakdown after arriving in Chicago due to the stress of testifying in the trial.
“That part gets me the most,” Parker said. “Here was an 18-year-old boy that put his life on the line.”
Parker said after he returned home, he felt like the world was judging him and Emmett.
“White people thought that Emmett got what he deserved,” Parker said. “The Black community [wanted to know] why didn’t we do something. They made me feel like a criminal because I was a 16-year-old boy and didn’t protect [Emmett]. I felt bad because I lived.”
Parker said he felt “distained” after the murder.
Parker remembered the day he returned to school following his cousin’s murder, and his white teacher asked him if he hated white people.
“Hate destroys the hater,” Parker said, words of wisdom he shares when he speaks to people about his experience.
After more than 65 years, Parker said “a lot of emotion comes back” when he speaks about what happened. And the events of that night have had long-term effects in his life.
“You can’t forget that,” he said. “Them coming in that house and me praying and shaking. It was pure trauma. Pure hell.”