Summer was a happy time in the Mississippi Delta for 12-year-old Simeon Wright. It only became happier when Wright and his brothers were told a cousin, Bobo, would be visiting from Chicago.
It was 1955. There was no way to know events over the ensuing days would kindle America’s conscience. But that’s what happened.
Visiting Mississippi a few years ago, Wright, who died last week at 74, said he doesn’t remember whether he knew Bobo’s real name back then.
Everybody knows it today.
Emmett Louis Till Jr.
Bobo was a city kid. His country cousins idolized him. He was worldly, lived where there were paved streets, ice cream parlors, movies. Bobo walked like a city person walks. Cool stuff.
In the Delta, summer days are long and slow. It’s when crops do their growing. Before herbicides, farm kids and their parents, whether black like the Wrights or white, spent much of the day weeding. “Chopping” is the term used for working down the rows, loosening the soil from around cotton plants and turning under unwanted growth.
The rest of their day, Simeon Wright remembered, was idyllic. Finding a creek for a swim, sitting, talking, horseplay, competitions. No angst, no tension. Completely relaxed.
One brother, Maurice, could drive. One evening the cousins piled in and rode to the nearest store, operated by the Bryant family in the tiny crossroads known as Money. They took turns in and out of the simple frame shop, counting their money and deciding whether to buy candy or fireworks or other novelties.
That’s when Bobo, always a show-off, broke the rules. He may have made eye contact with Carolyn Bryant, who was 21, or he may have said something smart. Some say he put his money in her hand rather than on the counter. The most popular version has Bobo issuing a wolf-whistle.
Regardless, the cousins knew immediately something bad had happened. They piled in the car and sped home. On the way, they agreed not to tell the Rev. and Mrs. Wright what Bobo did. It was a decision, Simeon Wright said, that may have cost Bobo his life. If the parents knew, they would have put Bobo on the train home immediately.
Carolyn Bryant, as it happened, did tell her husband, Roy, although her story changed, most recently in the last few years. Roy and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, decided to do something about it.
At 2 a.m. three days after the cousins had been to the store, Bryant and Milam forced their way into the Wright home. They took Bobo, who was sleeping in a room with Simeon and others, out the front door and put him in a pickup where unknown others were waiting.
The rules, you see, dictated that Bobo would be whipped, because that’s how white people enforced subservience.
Simeon Wright said he thinks Bobo refused simply to go limp and take the beating. That decision ratcheted the fury of Bryant and Milam who beat him to death, tied his body to an old gin motor and left it in the Tallahatchie River. At trial, they were found innocent.
Simeon Wright’s mother took the next train north and soon the family joined her. As an adult, Simeon Wright had a long, quiet career as a pipefitter in Argo.
A decision by Till’s mother, Mamie, was that the world see what happened. She allowed a photo of her son’s mangled body to be published. The nation reacted. The curtain slowly began closing on decades of beating and lynching to enforce white supremacy.
After the trial, Simeon Wright did visit Mississippi from time to time, usually for family events. He would drive to the Money store, long closed and now collapsed. His wife, Annie, saw how upset he became when media reports through the decades had errors. Quoting the Rev. Wright as testifying, “Thar he!” when identifying one of the killers was a big one. “My father was educated,” Simeon Wright said. They owned their own place, lived peaceable. “He didn’t talk like that.”
Annie Wright convinced her husband to write his own book, so about six years ago he did.
While visiting, Simeon Wright explained that as a Christian he harbored no hate for anyone involved. He said he wanted to go to heaven, so he had to have forgiveness in his heart.
Wright said he did worry about the souls of those who had not confessed and repented for their participation in killing his cousin. “They can’t go to heaven,” he said, “until their conscience is clear.”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.