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Emmett Till eyewitness dies; saw 1955 abduction of his cousin

Simeon Wright, photographed in 2004, wrote his own book about the events of Emmett Till’s abduction called “Simeon’s Story,” describing how his mother entered the room, begging the men not to take Till, even offering them money. | Sun-Times library

JACKSON, Miss. — Simeon Wright, an eyewitness to the 1955 abduction of his cousin Emmett Till, died Monday after a long battle with cancer, friends say. He was a longtime Chicago area resident.

Mr. Wright had long wanted to see justice in his cousin’s case, but it never came.

To this day, the Till case remains a symbol for those in the civil rights movement and for those who experience injustices.

Mr. Wright was present when he said Till, a Chicagoan nicknamed “Bobo,” wolf-whistled at Roy Bryant’s wife at the family’s grocery store. Mr. Wright said they all left in a car.

Days later, on Aug. 28, 1955, Mr. Wright and Till were sleeping next to each other when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant entered with guns.

Mr. Wright wrote his own book about the events called “Simeon’s Story,” describing how his mother entered the room, begging the men not to take Till, even offering them money.

“They had come for Bobo,” Mr. Wright wrote. “No begging, pleading or payment was going to stop them.”

The men took Till away, and Mr. Wright never saw him again.

“I must have stayed in the bed for hours, petrified,” Mr. Wright wrote.

The answer to what happened to his cousin came days later when Till’s body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River, a 75-pound gin fan tied to his neck. He had been brutally beaten and shot in the head.

Mamie Till Mobley and her son, Emmett Till, whose lynching in 1955 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. | Mamie Till Mobley Family/AP photo

To show the horror done to her 14-year-old son, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, told the funeral home to leave the casket open.

More than 100,000 African-Americans passed by, some weeping, some gasping, some fainting — all moved by the gruesome sight.

The photograph ran in publications around the world, and many African-Americans saw the picture for the first time in Jet magazine.

For Mobley, the horror didn’t end with her son’s killing.

Weeks later, an all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam of murdering Till — only for them to confess months later to Look magazine they had indeed beaten and killed the Chicago teen.

There has been a groundswell of interest in Till with the release of several books and some film projects underway. Mr. Wright had been working with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp.

Interest rose even higher after the release of Tim Tyson’s book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which included an interview with Roy Bryant’s ex-wife, Carolyn Bryant Donham.

Before the 1955 trial ended for Bryant, she took the witness stand and testified outside the presence of the Tallahatchie County jury that Till grabbed her, asked for a date and said he had been “with white women before.”

After the FBI reopened the case in 2004, agent Dale Killinger spoke to Donham, who divorced Bryant in 1975 and later remarried.

She repeated the story about Till she had previously testified to, telling Killinger that “as soon as he touched me, I started screaming.”

Notes obtained by The Clarion-Ledger reveal that she gave a different story when she first spoke to defense lawyers in 1955, saying Till “insulted” her but mentioned nothing about touching her.

In 2007, a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood declined to indict her, considering charges ranging from manslaughter to accessory after the fact. The FBI closed the case.

Donham has written about her experiences in the Till case in an unpublished memoir, “More Than a Wolf Whistle: The Memoir of Carolyn Bryant Donham.”

That won’t be available for public inspection at the University of North Carolina archives until 2036 or until she dies, but authorities could subpoena her words.

Tyson said Donham told him her testimony about a physical assault by Till was “not true.”

“Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” Tyson quoted her as saying.

He said she gave no reason for the story she told, although he suspects it was contrived for her by Bryant’s family and lawyers.

The Justice Department “is currently assessing whether the newly revealed statement could warrant additional investigation,” Acting Assistant Attorney General T.E. Wheeler II wrote U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson in a letter.

Civil rights activist Alvin Sykes of Kansas City, whose work also helped lead to the reopening of Till’s case in 2004, and Till’s cousin, Deborah Watts, met in April with Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the case and about the possibility of pursuing other civil rights cold cases.

Sykes said Sessions expressed support for pursuing these cold cases.

Watts quoted Sessions as saying, “No one gets a pass.”

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