"Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till"
By Simeon Wright with Herb BoydLawrence Hill Books, 144 pages, $19.95
In the summer of 1955, when Simeon Wright was 12, nothing excited him more than the coming arrival from Chicago of his older cousin Bobo, who would bring his big city clothes, big city stories, and big city ways to the Mississippi Delta. It was the start of the cotton picking season, so they¿¿¿d have to work the fields, of course. But they'd find time to go swimming, see a western at a Greenwood movie theater, and visit Bryant¿¿¿s store in nearby Money.
When he arrived, Bobo was everything Simeon expected, only less interested in picking cotton and chubbier: at 14, he was 5-foot 6 and weighed about 140 pounds. While Simeon and his Mississippi kin wore overalls and blue jeans, Bobo wore khaki pants, cotton shirts, penny loafers, and a silver ring bearing the initials LT.
Bobo showed audacity and naivete. Through a stutter, he scolded his cousins for not standing up to a bully--- "How can you let someone come on your turf and strut his stuff?" Bobo wanted to know --- and he thoughtlessly, recklessly, lighted firecrackers in front of a white-owned store. At night, in the bedroom he and Simeon shared with another cousin, Bobo talked on and on, mesmerizing his cousin with stories about life in Chicago.
But the biggest story of Simeon¿¿¿s life was the one Bobo never got to tell. The cousin that Simeon knew as Bobo was Emmett Till, still vividly remembered in history books, novels, movies, documentaries, plays, songs and poems as the most grotesque victim of Jim Crow brutality at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Fifty four years after Till was tortured, beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with his late father¿¿¿s ring on his finger and a 70-pound cotton gin fan strapped to his neck with barbed wire, Simeon Wright tells his story in a book aimed primarily at informing young adults about the death and times of Emmett Till.
But Wright, aided by noted writer Herb Boyd, is clearly driven by a larger motivation: Simeon¿¿¿s Story seeks to debunk myths about Till¿¿¿s behavior at Bryant's store, to straighten out widely accepted falsities about the testimony Wright¿¿¿s father gave at the trial of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam; and to provide fascinating backfill on some stories that needed it.
"Simeon¿¿¿s Story" is not the first time Wright has set the record straight. For years, he has been a remarkably honest broker of information, even when his account was at odds with the version offered by Emmett Till¿¿¿s mother.
So while those who are familiar with history's discrepancies are not likely to learn much new about the events leading to Till¿¿¿s murder, there is much to learn here. Some of it is just delicious detail, the kind any writer of these events will wish he had known and used: The Wright home, from which Till was abducted, sat on Dark Fear Road, across from Lake Never-Fail.
Wright's book is, as I used to hear Mississippi legislators say, "clearifying" on important details. The most dramatic moment of the trial came when Simeon¿¿¿s father, Mose Wright, described the abduction of Till and was asked to identify the kidnappers. When the extraordinary documentary series Eyes on the Prize told the Till story, it featured James Hicks, reporter for the Amsterdam News, recalling that Mose Wright pointed a finger at Milam and said, “Thar he,” then identified Bryant.
The backwoods charm of that expression became irresistible in future story-telling about the trial, though the overwhelming evidence from news coverage in 1955, including Hicks' own story from the time, is that Wright, a literate and well-spoken man, actually said, "There he is." Simeon Wright rightly takes umbrage at the characterization of his father. Some of Simeon Wright's firsthand account is critical to an understanding of what really happened inside Bryant's grocery on the day Till was alleged by Carolyn Bryant to have grabbed her, embraced her, asked her for a date or called her "baby." Wright portrays Till as capable of behavior that, for a black kid in 1955, was risky, but not frisky. And none of the things she would later allege, he insists, could have happened in the short time --- less than a minute --- that Till was alone with her before Wright walked into the store. It couldn¿¿¿t have happened, Wright said, without Till jumping over a counter that was separating him and her, then jumping back before Wright came inside the store. But Wright repeats his long-held memory that Till in fact did whistle at her. "I think he wanted to get a laugh out of us or something. He was always joking around, and it was hard to tell when he was serious," Wright wrote. "It was a loud wolf whistle, a big-city 'whee wheeeee!' and it caught us all by surprise."
Wright, it must be said, has long been forthright about those details, even when his account undermined a scenario that gave Till's mother more comfort: Mamie Till Bradley (later Mobley) maintained her son would not have wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant, and that any similar sound was probably due to Till's stuttering.
Simeon's Song is not powerfully told. It sometimes loses track when it abandons chronology. It is, of course, a deeply sad story, but it often misses opportunities to reflect the drama, the tension and the terror of the time; even the fear Wright describes as he watched Milam and Bryant come into his room to take Till falls flat. If the book was intended to take young adults back into the cauldron of race-driven madness, fear and hatred, its narrative could have been more gripping. Whatever physical convulsions Simeon Wright felt when he learned his idol was dead are long ago forgotten. The story is strongest where it fills in the long overdue story of Mose Wright, Simeon's father and Till's great-uncle, who caught the attention of reporters and their audiences when, without protection or fear, he patiently sat on his porch and explained the terror of being awakened in the night, going to the door, exchanging courtesies with two white men, then watching as they pushed inside with guns and flashlights and abducted his visiting nephew.
When Mose Wright kept his vow to testify against them in court, reporters were in even greater awe of this small man's large courage. He was 64 years old -- most people thought he was Simeon's grandfather --- just over 5-feet, 6 inches tall, thin, wizened and at the bottom of the white supremacist society.
When he rose a little from the witness chair, leaned forward and pointed his leathery finger at the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Milam, New York columnist Murray Kempton saw astonishing heroism. He described Wright as "a black pygmy standing up to a white ox." Simeon Wright, whose family fled to Chicago after the trial, gives fresh and admirable attention to the roots of Mose Wright's courage. He had been taking brave stands for a long time. Raised without a mother, he walked away from his abusive father at 16. He worked farms in North Mississippi, married, started a family, catted around and came to a religious reckoning that emboldened him to quit drinking. He became a circuit riding preacher. He refused to work for white men who would fix the scales and shortchange him when his cotton haul was weighed.
Most remarkably, when he was 25 years old and drafted into the Army in 1917, he refused to serve on religious and moral grounds. He belonged to a church whose founder was imprisoned for speaking against military service, and he couldn¿¿¿t understand why he should help make a foreign continent safe for democracy when he believed his own wasn't, at least for black people. His defiance led to his arrest. He spent 30 days in jail. Simeon Wright is just the latest in a long line of writers who find the Emmett Till story compelling, but his perspective and proximity are critical to a full understanding.
Besides, this story can't get told enough. After the trial, the then-white supremacist Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, which relied on the wire services to cover this national story, declared. "It is best for all concerned that the Bryant-Milam case be forgotten as quickly as possible. It has received far more publicity than should have been given."
That alone should be reason for writers to stay on the story.
Hank Klibanoff, co-author of "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation," winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times