The same Jim Crow mindset

April 5, 2012

On August 28, 1955, Simeon Wright was sharing a bed with his cousin Emmett Till in his father's home in Money, Miss., when two white men burst in and kidnapped the 14-year-old Emmett. Days later, Emmett's disfigured body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He was murdered for the "crime" of allegedly whistling at a white woman while they were leaving a local store.

Wright has been active in various struggles against racism over the years. At protests in Chicago against the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Wright has spoken out for justice. He is the author, with Herb Boyd, of Simeon's Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till. He talked to Joe Allen about what happened to his cousin--and how it relates to the case of Trayvon's murder, more than half a century after Emmett's death.

COULD YOU tell us a little about yourself?

MY NAME is Simeon Wright. I am the son of Mose Wright and a cousin of Emmett Till, who came down to visit us in 1955. I was at the store [Bryant's Store] with Emmett and in bed together with him when he was taken, beaten, shot in the head and thrown in the river, and nothing was done about it.

MANY PEOPLE see similarities between your cousin Emmett's case and that of Trayvon Martin. Do you think they're right?

THERE IS quite a bit of similarity. One of the things that strikes me is that when those people kidnapped Emmett, none of them were punished. In Florida, a young man is killed, 17 years old, shot by a neighborhood watch person, and nothing is done. The police "investigated' this case, they looked at it, and they did about what they did in 1955. They said, "Well, he had a right to defend himself." There's no law against him doing that!

Here are the facts. Trayvon was walking home when he was spotted by a neighborhood watch guy. Trayvon wind up dead, shot and killed by this person called George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is apprehended and gives a statement--and later released after claiming self-defense.

New Yorkers rally for justice for Emmett Till at a 1955 protest organized by the NAACP and labor unions
New Yorkers rally for justice for Emmett Till at a 1955 protest organized by the NAACP and labor unions

The same thing happened under the Jim Crow mindset--they felt they had a right to kill a Black person. They felt that this right was protected by "We the People" and the Constitution. This is the same thing as before--"We the People" protecting a racist who kills a Black man, and says that he had a right to do it.

If it wasn't for our civil rights laws nothing would be done. But now that the [federal] government has stepped in, the state has to do something. I'm confident that the state is going to do something, because if they don't, the feds will.

But it's so similar. Black boys are killed, and the people who swore to serve and protect us do nothing about it. They weren't going to do anything. Thank God for the Internet. Thank God for the people following this case and keeping it alive, and the mother and the father keeping their son's memory alive. Or they would have buried the whole thing, like they tried to do in 1955.

THERE IS a concerted effort by some sections of the media to try to blame the victim in Trayvon's case. Did something similar happen with Emmett?

THEY SAID that Emmett was brash, and that he brought this on himself. What they're saying now is the same spirit that happened then, and it's never died. I tell people everywhere that you can't change a man's heart--I don't care how many laws you pass. Racism is alive and well. It's just not in your face.

When you see what happened in Florida, that it was in your face--"I will kill you, and nothing is going to happen."

AS SOMEONE who has lived with these issues for 50 years, what advice do you have for Trayvon's parents and supporters?

KEEP UP the pressure. Tell the people that Zimmerman is speaking for himself, and someone must speak for Trayvon. The law was supposed to speak for that boy, and the law has failed him. The mother and the father, if they don't keep up the pressure, people will try to bury this.

YOU WROTE a book with Herb Boyd called Simeon's Story about your experiences with your cousin's case and its aftermath. What was your motivation in writing the book?

THE MOTIVATION was for people to get the facts of what happened in that store, what happened at the trial. I had to dispel a lot of filth out there that never happened--that Emmett went in the store and put his arms around Carolyn Bryant and asked her for a date and all of that.

Because of this particular lie, some said he deserved to get what he got. So I wrote the book to dispel that, and let people in on the facts of what happened.

YOU AND your family moved to Chicago five-and-a-half decades ago, right after the trial of Emmett's murderers, when your father identified them in court. Here in Chicago, issues of police brutality and racism have always been major issues. What are your thoughts on those issues today?

I'VE BEEN in Chicagoland for 57 years in August. In 50-something years, I never heard of the police shooting a white boy unless that white boy was shooting back at them. They're shooting our young sons and daughters down, and our Black politicians are not saying anything. That bothers me. They're suppose to change the system, but as soon as they get elected, they become part of the system. We still don't have equal protection under the law in Chicagoland.

IS THERE anything else you like would to tell our readers today?

I'D LIKE them to know that the Jim Crow mindset is still alive and well. That mindset is I have a right to kill a Black man and be protected by "We the People." "We the People" will not convict. That mindset has to change.

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