“I was lying there, frozen stiff and not moving, when my mother rushed into the room,” Simeon Wright recounted of the morning when his cousin Emmett Till was abducted by two white men. “She began pleading with the men not to take Bobo [Till].” But as the world would soon know, her pleas were in vain, and later Emmett’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River.
This incident was just one of several chilling moments Wright wrote about in his memoir, “Simeon’s Story—An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till” (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010), and although I have written hundreds of obituaries, there’s no way I can step back and write objectively about someone I worked closely with on his book.
A flood of wonderful memories washed over me Monday when Keith Beauchamp called to inform me of Wright’s passing. According to his wife, Annie, he died of bone cancer at his home in Countryside, Ill. He was 74. “Simeon was very private about his illness,” said Beauchamp, who was responsible for bringing Wright into my life. And that privacy was something I could attest to during our many hours completing his book.
As I related in the book’s foreword, I met Wright in 2002, when Beauchamp was traveling around the country previewing his documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Only after Beauchamp’s patient pursuit did Wright agree to participate in his project, and Wright expressed a similar reluctance in publishing his personal account of those painful days.
Among the things troubling Wright were the many lies, distortions and inaccuracies about his cousin’s death, and for these reasons he shied away from reporters and filmmakers who sought his involvement and to get him to tell his version of what happened in Money, Miss. in 1955.
I was stunned and excited some months later after I had proposed working with him that he called and said he was ready to tell his story. Later, I learned it was his satisfaction with Beauchamp’s documentary and the gentle urging of his wife that convinced him to write his book.
Wright was a consummate storyteller, and for the most part, except for some editorial assistance, he could have written the book without me, but I am forever grateful for the opportunity to be by his side as he took me back to that tragic and historic incident many feel ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
Chapter by chapter from his early years in Mississippi to those days in Argo, Ill., which became his home after the family left the South, Wright’s story is a gripping odyssey, and we decided to let it unfold through his childhood reflections. He was 12 when Till, then 14, came to visit in Money.
After two or three chapters about Jim Crow in the South and his family—his mother Elizabeth was his father Mose’s second wife—Wright cut to the chase, and immediately he began to set the record straight about their encounter with Carolyn Bryant.
In the book, Wright fully explained the circumstances surrounding the wolf whistle that actually occurred, thereby putting to rest the many allegations. “We all looked at each other,” he wrote, “realizing that Bobo had violated a longstanding unwritten law, a social taboo about conduct between Blacks and whites in the South. Suddenly, we felt we were in danger…and we ran to the car. Bobo, with a slight limp from the polio he’d contracted as a child, ran along with us, but not as panic-stricken as we were.”
The only concern Emmett had about the incident was that they not tell Mose Wright about what had happened, lest he be sent back to Chicago. They promised to keep quiet about it, but Carolyn Bryant didn’t. When she told her husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam, what had happened, they set in motion a tragedy that even today, with a number of books and film projects in process, continues to be an unforgettable moment.
There is no need to rehash the subsequent trial in which the family expected no justice, or the later confession of their crime to William Bradford Huie of Look magazine for $4,000. What should be noted was the courage of Mamie Till Bradley (later Mamie Till Mobley), who brought her son’s battered body back for funeral services in Chicago. Her determination to let the world see the result of the lynching of her son at an open-casket funeral gave the murder international exposure.
It was the photos of Emmett’s brutally disfigured face that captured the nation’s attention and, even many years later, Beauchamp’s interest and tireless commitment to give that tragedy more resonance and more believable human dimension.
“I’m grieved beyond expression and heartbroken for the loss of my dear friend to whom I had the pleasure of working with and learning from for most of my adult life,” Beauchamp said in a text message about Wright. “It seems like yesterday, when we first started the journey together to expose the truth surrounding the murder of his cousin. Next to Mother Mobley [who died Jan. 6, 2003], Simeon was one of the most fearless and courageous people I’ve ever met. He had the biggest heart and was a man of great wisdom. It’s going to be very difficult to continue our journey without him.”
Wright, on resuming his life in Argo after leaving Mississippi, had to endure a similar period of being all at sea, and it would take years for him to push Till’s murder and the travesty of a trial in which, although he was an eyewitness to the abduction, only his identification of Till’s ring accepted as testimony, into the deeper recesses of his mind.
There is not space here to consider even a sizable portion of his memoir that details his coming of age in Chicago, his work as a pipefitter, his supportive wife and the jubilation they enjoyed with the passing of the Till Bill, creating a cold case unit at the Justice Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders, something Beauchamp has done proficiently and exhaustively.
“The Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative was first and was created in 2006,” Beauchamp further explained, “by the FBI and DOJ inspired by the reopening of the Till case. Till Bill 1 followed and was signed into law in 2008, and of course the reauthorization of the Bill happened in 2016 signed by Obama before he left office.”
I hadn’t heard from Wright in several months, although I was reminded quarterly with the arrival of royalty checks of just how energetically he had been in promoting the book. It was clear from the size of the checks that Wright had become a motivational speaker of some renown.
There may still be more checks to come, but there will never be another Wright, and the plans that were underway to have us reunite in Pittsburgh as we had previously done in Detroit, is another sad reminder of how much he meant to me and to the rest of the world who will, I hope, read his book to get a full picture of his indomitable, unimpeachable integrity.
I remember the last paragraph in his book and his advice to aspiring writers, journalists and future lawyers, or anyone planning on working in the communications field: “If you want an accurate account of any story, go to the primary sources. They know exactly what happened.”
Wright knew and he can still be consulted.