Last living witness to Emmett Till's kidnapping tells his story at SIU equity symposium
The Rev. Wheeler Parker, the last living eyewitness to Emmett Till’s 1955 kidnapping, recounted the fateful events that led to his cousin’s death at a Southern Illinois University equity symposium on Thursday.
“My story is not a pleasant story,” Parker told the crowd in Collinsville. “It's not a pretty story, but it's an American story.”
Two white men were accused of torturing and beating the 14-year-old Till to death after he whistled at a white woman working at a store. Parker said Till was known for making jokes and thought it was just an innocent prank.
“1955 in Mississippi, and you wolf whistle at a white woman — that’s death,” Parker said. “When he whistled, we all made a beeline to the car.”
His death is seen as a watershed event in the American Civil Rights Movement after photos of Till’s mutilated body were widely shown at his funeral.
Parker, who said Till was his best friend, traveled with him and other family members to Mississippi from the Chicago area where they lived.
After Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, who claimed at the murder trial that Till also touched her and made obscene remarks, Parker said he and the other family members knew the situation would be bad. Parker said Till only whistled; he didn’t do anything else he was accused of.
“I knew he did something that they thought was worthy of death,” the 84-year-old Parker said.
Parker, who was 16 at the time, said he thought he might be killed as well. He was asleep in the house where the two white men, Rob Bryant and John William Milam, broke in and kidnapped his cousin.
“It was pure hell over there — just pure hell in the house,” Parker said. “The atmosphere was horrible.”
The men told the family they’d bring Till back if he was innocent, Parker said. They never did, and it was three days later when the family would learn Till was brutally murdered.
Even though an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam, Parker said the fact that there was even a trial showed that progress was being made back in the 1950s.
“This story shows where we came from (and) how we got here,” Parker said. “And, once you find out how you got to a certain place, then you know what to do to keep going.”
Carol Bryant, Till’s accuser, died earlier this year. A few SIU students asked what Parker made of her death and if he had any relief.
“I wanted to hear her say the truth,” Parker said. “That I didn’t get. I didn’t get that kind of closure.”
However, he said he would not let the horrific events define his life.