Emmett Till's Cousin Remembers
Archival Recording: All right. It's a law. Okay, yay. (APPLAUSE)
Trymaine Lee: For the first time in American history, lynching is now a federal hate crime. Just saying that sounds crazy, but it wasn't until last week in a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden, when President Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law, that lynching was recognized in the federal law books.
President Joe Biden: I want to think Vice President Harris, who was a key co-sponsor to this bill when she was a United States States Senator. (APPLAUSE) And I also want to thank Speaker Pelosi, and Leader Schumer, and members of the Congress here today, especially Congressman Hoyer, Bobby Rush, Senator Dick Durbin, and Cory Booker.
I also want to thank Senator Tim Scott who couldn't be here today, and the Civil Rights leaders gathered here today, and most of all the family of Emmett Till, and Ida B. Wells. Thank you for never giving up, never ever giving up. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: Now if someone conspires to commit a hate crime that results in serious injury or death, it would be considered a lynching under federal law, punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
President Joe Biden: Hundreds, hundreds of similar bills have failed to pass. But no federal law, no federal law expressly prohibited lynching, none. Until today.
Lee: This moment is more than 120 years in the making. On January 20, 1900, U.S. Representative George Henry White of North Carolina introduced America's first antilynching bill. The legislation would have made people convicted of mob violence eligible for the death penalty.
White was the only Black member of Congress during his service. His proposal was considered radical at the time, and because of it, white Republicans dropped their support for him, and later that year, White announced that he would not seek reelection for a third term.
Since then, antilynching legislation has been introduced in Congress more than 200 times, mostly between the 1930s and 1950s. More than 4,000 Black people were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
But antilynching legislation has failed every, single time it was brought before Congress until this year, and it was not an easy path at all. Illinois Representative Bobby Rush first introduced the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in 2019.
The bill passed the House of Representatives with overwhelming, bipartisan support. But in 2020, it failed in the Senate when Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky objected to its language for being "too broad in its definition of lynching," just days after George Floyd was murdered.
Senator Rand Paul: This bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion. Our nation's history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness from us than that.
Lee: Over the next year, Senators Cory Booker, a Democrat, and Republican Tim Scott worked with Paul, and they reached a compromise specifying that perpetrators or conspirators had to cause or intend to cause death or serious bodily injury to qualify as a lynching under the law.
With that change, Paul signed on as a co-sponsor when the legislation was reintroduced last year. The House passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in February. Only three representatives voted against it: Republicans Andrew Clyde of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Chip Roy of Texas.
A week later it passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The same day that President Biden signed the act into law, Congressman Bobby Rush, who is a former Black Panther, pointed out that Emmett Till would have been 80 years old if he were alive today.
Congressman Bobby Rush: He ignited through his tragic death, a social revolution that's heard all around the world.
Lee: In 1955, Emmett Till was just 14 years old, a boy from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, when he was kidnapped and murdered for whistling at a white woman. Days later his tortured, bloated body was dragged out of the Tallahatchee River, and sent home to his mother, Mamie Till in Chicago. She decided to hold an open casket funeral where an estimated 50,000 people bore witness to the brutality that her son endured.
Mamie Till: My first reaction was to let the world see what is happening in the United States of America.
Lee: Mamie Till talked about her decision on the public TV channel WGBH in Boston in 1988.
Mamie Till: I wanted the world to see, and I knew that I could not tell anybody what I had seen. It was just too horrible.
Lee: When pictures of his face, mutilated beyond recognition, were published around the country, it acted as a shock to the national consciousness, forcing people off the sidelines, and into the fight to recognize Black Americans' basic humanity.
At the same time, the case put the American legal system and all its baked-in injustice on trial. Two white men were charged with Emmett's murder, but they were found not guilty by an all white jury. Less than a year later, they bragged about the murder in a magazine article.
The pictures of Emmett's mutilated face, his mother's strength, and the gross miscarriage of justice, all helped fuel the modern Civil Rights movement. I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act is now the law of the land, ensuring that his name will live on, and hopefully be a beacon of progress for years to come. Today, we speak to the last living relative to witness Emmett's kidnapping about Emmett's life, tragic death, and the legacy he left behind.
Reverend Wheeler Parker: You can't ever forget that. A traumatic experience like that you can never forget, never, ever. You don't have to make yourself think about it, it's just there. It's almost like breathing.
Lee: What does it mean to have Emmett Till's name on this Antilynching Act?
Parker: What does it mean to have his name? I think one thing, by his name being there, it help us to remember his story, where we came from, and shows how much work we got to do. So that's the gist of it: how far we've come, and how much work we have to do.
It tells a story, the name itself. You can't have that name out there without, "Who's Emmett Till?" You know. It's kind of like George Washington, "Who's George Washington?" "First president of America," if you don't know no more than that, you know. But anyway, there're certain names carries a story, and his name carry a story.
Lee: The Reverend Wheeler Parker probably knows Emmett Till's story and Emmett the person better than anybody else alive today.
Parker: And I know Emmett as a fun-lovin' prankster, jokester, loved jokes, paid people to tell him jokes, never had a dull day in his life, always a center of attraction. That's him personified.
Lee: Reverend Wheeler Parker is Emmett Till's cousin. Reverend Parker was born in Schlater, Mississippi in 1939. When he was seven years old, his family moved north to Argo, Illinois, a small suburb bordering Chicago. Reverend Parker was just two years older than Emmett, and the pair grew up like brothers.
Parker: He didn't have any siblings, so his mother took me with him on fishing trips and stuff of that nature. Otherwise we lived next door. And we lived in a small town where you didn't lock your door at night, and we're in and out of each other's house like Grand Central Station, you know. It was a neighborhood type of thing, you know, 'bout 1600 Black people so we saw each other all the time.
Lee: And when I hear you telling the story of, you know, this small town, you got your cousins and everybody next door, you have five siblings, and everybody's kinda just movin' around, it sounds like a lot of fun. And I wonder if you have, like, a favorite memory from your cousin Emmett. (LAUGH) I know it might be hard to choose, but if you had a favorite one.
Parker: In our district we had four schools, District 104, and they had these softball tournaments every year. So Emmett had moved to Chicago, but he came back, and he wanted to play. He insisted upon playin', so they let him play, and he hit the ball, and he scored. I can see him now, boy, he runnin' like he pullin' a truck. (LAUGH) He got throwed out at home, lost the game for us.
Lee: Was it molasses, his shoes were just, he was just stuck?
Parker: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Parker: He just didn't have it man, when it come to runnin'.
Lee: Another one of Reverend Parker's favorite memories with Emmett is from a time when they went fishing along the Des Plaines River. Emmett caught the only fish that day.
Parker: He snatched it. Fish had landed up on the bank, and it was floppin' around, and dirty. So he said, "Man, I got him." So he decided he goin' wash him off. Man, (LAUGH) you know what happened to that fish.
Lee: Of course.
Parker: --didn't see that fish no more.
Lee: That's great.
Parker: Fish gone.
Lee: Yeah, he was gone. (UNINTEL PHRASE).
Parker: It was like the rabbit in the briar patch. Oh boy.
Lee: That's a good one.
Parker: A lot of good, clean fun, broke, with nothin'.
Lee: In August 1955, Reverend Parker's mother planned a trip to visit family in Money, Mississippi. He was 16 years old, and it was his first time returning since moving to the North. When Emmett heard his cousin was goin' South, he insisted on comin' along. These trips between North and South were routine for the sons and daughters of the Great Migration.
Parker: Oh, man. You went South on holiday man, and the South was flooded with cars from Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, and man, people would meet up, and it's like reunions, man. Boy they had them head rags on 'em, and them shoe box with the chicken and stuff in it. We were rollin', boy.
Lee: I hate to be too romantic about it, but when I hear about that chicken in the shoebox that sound like the best chicken, the best fried chicken, probably ever. Somethin' about it just seem like us, it just seem right.
Parker: Yeah, oh man, that's us. But some of it had the grease comin' there.
Lee: That's when you know it's good. (LAUGHTER)
Parker: Somebody said, "Chicken and sweet potato and chocolate pie," oh.
Lee: On that August day in 1955, Reverend Parker and Emmett took the train back to Mississippi together.
Parker: And I was excited about it, and my mother got on the train with five kids, it was exciting, just anticipation, you know?
Lee: So when you finally get down to Mississippi, where do y'all go, and how are you spending your time? Like, what did y'all get into?
Parker: When we get to Mississippi it's not planned, but you don't have to worry about get caught walkin' around town. They get you for vagrancy, and you know what your sentence is? To the cotton field until the cotton's all got harvest. It was a system, "You better not get caught, or we're gonna (UNINTEL)."
You know, like, "What's wrong with you boy, where you from?" You know. So it was understood with people who lived there, and if you want to be your cousins, all of my uncles I went to see were younger than I am, and one, we was about the same age. So we hit the cotton fields right with 'em.
Parker: I think Emmett lasted about one day, he couldn't handle it. He was killin'--
Lee: That was it.
Parker: The heat was too much for him.
Lee: Sounds like there are these boundaries that folks knew you couldn't cross. You couldn't even be walkin' around town without the prospect of end up, you know, locked up or somethin'.
Parker: It's a way of life, and you understood it, so there was no question about it. You just weren't gonna do it.
Parker: If you violated, they knew you was not from there, and if you talk, they gonna know you're not from there. So they got to keep talkin' to you, to see how well-trained you are. That's one thing that'll happen, that's a given. They're gonna fix it so you're gonna have to say, "Yes, sir," or "No, sir," "Yes, ma'am," or "No, ma'am." They accosted you until they get that out of you.
Lee: With those rules, those kind of hardcore rules, that racial hierarchy set in place, were you scared? Or were you just tryin' to, like, avoid white folks and just do what you gotta do, and not engage with them? Or did you interact with them, but you were just, like, walkin' on eggshells?
Parker: Well, this the way it was. Basically, even in that area now, I think about 80% of the area is Black. So very seldom did you come in contact with the whites. When you did, you were conscientiously aware right away: where you are, the do's, and the don't.
There's no doubt about it. So as a whole we were to ourselves, and were not tryin' to integrate, and we had more fun than that law allowed, you know.
Lee: Because Reverend Parker had spent the first years of his childhood in Mississippi, he was all too familiar with the unfair expectations that white folks in general had for Black people down South. But for Emmett, it was uncharted territory.
Parker: Emmett, he got a crash course with the South.
Lee: On August 24th, 1955, Reverend Parker, Emmett, and their uncles and cousins, left the cotton fields and headed into town. They stopped by Bryant's Grocery & Meat Market for some refreshments. Reverend Parker went in first.
Parker: And in come Emmett. So I remember my heart, boom, you know, I know Emmett, I know he's a prankster, and so the first thing I'm worried about, I know the do's and don'ts. I know Southern mores, and then I wonder, "Does he know it?" That's the big question, "Can he handle it? Is he ready?" So I left him in the store. Nothin' happened while I was there, and so she came out later, after they came out, and when he came out, Emmett as he did in Chicago, he gave a wolf whistle.
Lee: The white woman Emmett whistled at was Carolyn Bryant. Her husband, Roy Bryant, owned the store, and Carolyn was working there that day.
Parker: And man, down South, 1955, if there'd be some white men there, they'd have probably shot him on the spot. So man, we (UNINTEL) said "Let's go," we made a beeline for the car, and we got out of there.
Lee: You were well aware of the mores of the South, and I wonder when you heard him make that whistle, that wolf whistle as you describe it, how did that feel? In that moment did you realize that, okay, this was a line that was crossed?
Parker: Oh, man, no doubt about it. We knew that he had crossed it.
Parker: They lived there, and I remember, plus you heard those stories all along, what happened to people. My daddy had to sleep with his gun overnight.
Parker: So we were very, man, when he did that, we could have went in a hole in the ground. We could not believe. We could not believe that he had done that.
Lee: So what happened next? What did y'all, you make a beeline for the car, you hop in the car, and then what?
Parker: Okay. We're goin' down this gravel road, you've got blacktop road and then the dirt road. When you get to the dirt road you're in the back end of the woods, right. So we're goin' on this gravel road, man, dust was flyin' everywhere, and there's a car behind us.
We said, "Man, they after us, they after us." You know, so my uncle sped up, and we jump out the car, and ran out through the cotton field, and the car passed on by. So we regrouped at the edge of the road, and of course we were talkin' about it. And Emmett asked us not to tell my grandfather.
Lee: Reverend Parker and the cousins decided to keep quiet. The incident happened on a Wednesday, and he says by the weekend, they had more or less put it out of their minds.
Parker: As youngsters, 12, 14, and 16, we kinda forgot about it.
Lee: When we come back, Reverend Wheeler Parker recalls the night his cousin was kidnapped, his own harrowing escape from Mississippi back home to Chicago, and the legacy that Emmett Till has left behind.
Lee: On Sunday, August 28th, 1955, Reverend Wheeler Parker, Emmett Till, and a handful of cousins and uncles were sharing beds in four different rooms throughout his grandparents' house when Reverend Parker remembers being jolted awake in the middle of the night.
Parker: So I hear, about 2:30 a.m. in the morning I hear these people talkin'. "You have two boys here from Chicago," and then specifically said, "We want to talk to the bad boy that did the talkin' at the store." They didn't say "whistle," they just said, "Who did the talkin' at the store."
And I said, "God," I said, "We gettin' ready to die." And I know all the Southern stories, people who got killed and goin' missin', and never saw 'em again. I said, "These people gettin' ready to kill us." My grandfather was there, and the boys' there, so I said, "God, please just let me live," I'm shakin' like a leaf on a tree. When death is imminent, your whole demeanor change, your whole attitude. I said, "I'm gettin' ready to die, and I'm not in good standin' with God," I'm tryin' to get that straight. I said, "Just let me live, I'm gonna do right."
Lee: Reverend Parker waited in his bed as the men barged through the house.
Parker: My grandfather had no idea what room he's in. Our two rooms right off the front porch, he's on one side, I'm on the other side. Then you hear 'em comin' your way, it's dark, it's after midnight, you can't see your hand before your face, and no lights on anywhere.
Of course when they comin' in, you hear 'em, and a light breaks the darkness in the room, from the flashlight. Closed my eyes, waitin' to be killed, waitin' to be shot. I remember openin' my eyes as they're passin' by me. My uncle, with me in bed, didn't wake up.
Went to the next room, my cousin Curtis is there now, but he didn't wake up. Went to the next third bedroom and found Emmett in bed with my uncle Simeon, my uncle Robert also was in there, he didn't wake up. Course they aroused him, and he went to put his socks on, it was pure hell. It was pure hell. I mean it's just, man, the atmospheres was just charged.
Lee: The family pleaded with the two white men, later revealed to be Roy Bryant, husband of Carolyn Bryant, and J.W. Milam, not to take Emmett.
Parker: My grandmother tried to offer 'em money, they wouldn't take that. I think Simeon said that Mr. Bryant hesitated for awhile about the money thing.
Lee: But in the end the men stole Emmett away. Reverend Parker was terrified that they would come back for him and his uncles.
Parker: So he had no idea. See, I probably got everybody killed. Whatever they're gonna do, they're gonna do it to me there. I just could feel death. My uncle, that lived, that were raised in that atmosphere, they weren't afraid. They didn't think nothin' gonna happen to him.
But I said, "We gettin' ready to die, these people gonna kill us." And that's a bad feeling at 16. 16, man, I don't know if you remember, at 16 you ain't tryin' to die. Now I'm 83 today, so I ain't tryin' to go nowhere, but I welcome it when it comes, you know. I've had a good life, I've had a good run, but 16, man, I was tryin' to L-I-V-E, big time. I ain't tryin' to die at all.
Lee: The family was distraught over Emmett's kidnapping, but they still worried the men would come back for Reverend Parker. So the next day one of his uncles picked him up from the house, and drove him to the train station, so he could get back to his family in Chicago.
Parker: Man, it's mind-boggling. I remember my uncle, my dad's brother they got to him so kind of way. He came, he didn't have a car, but he was gonna use my grandfather's car. And we come back, I remember him takin' his pistol out of his pocket. He looked at me and he just get his pistol and put it in the glove compartment. Took me down to the station, the train didn't come. Thank god he wouldn't leave me there, 'cause he knew how terrified I was.
Lee: Reverend Parker didn't know whether Emmett was alive or dead, or whether those men were out there looking for him. His uncle risked his life to protect him.
Parker: Now this man, he got 12 kids at home, man. He's leavin' them, and you could be damaged with him protecting me, or come and rescue us about it. So yeah, eventually I got on a troop carrier train, a lot of Air Force guys. And when I got to Memphis, I had to change trains. And man, I'm thinking I'm in Chicago, man.
Lee: Reverend Parker was so scared he didn't recognize that he was in Memphis, not Chicago, and without knowing it he almost walked into the whites only bathroom.
Parker: Big train station, it's just Chicago atmosphere to me.
Parker: You know, I forgot and I'm goin' to the wrong washroom, you know, the signs say, "black and white." A man, he starts sayin', "Boy, you can't go in there." And it scared me all over, I think I'll never get home. I mean, I got scared all over again. "You can't go in that washroom." I just couldn't get home fast enough, you know, where I could feel safe.
Lee: Finally Reverend Parker made it home to Chicago. He went straight to the home of Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, where the family was keeping vigil. You know, we-- we have this image in our head of Mamie Till as a pillar of strength, crusading for her baby, and helping to spark a movement. But I wonder in those days before Emmett was found how she was holdin' up, how she was doin'?
Parker: She lived in a state of limbo, not knowing, and knowing Mississippi, knowing what could possibly happen.
Lee: Mamie Till understood that her son had crossed a line, an entrenched racial boundary meant to protect the so-called "purity" of white womanhood.
Parker: Milam said, "When a Black man think about being with a white woman, he's tired of livin'." They were serious as a heart attack about that.
Lee: The days dragged on with no word about Emmett.
Parker: Just waitin' to hear somethin'. On Monday, didn't hear nothin' Monday, Tuesday, nothin'. Wednesday, that's when they found him.
Lee: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam had tortured Emmett before shooting him in the head, and dumping his brutalized body into the Tallahatchee River. His body had been in the river for three days before two boys found it while fishing, bloating, and mangled. Mamie Till demanded to have an open casket at his funeral, saying "Let the world see what I've seen." Reverend Parker doesn't remember much about that decision, or the funeral in general.
Parker: My memory and the way I went through that is very unusual. And I never cried, never had any sorrow, never had any animosity, and I asked people to help me understand that, some say you probably was in a state of shock, or it's God's way of protecting you.
But I said, "This is not Emmett." I said it, and I believed it. I said, "I'm gonna see him again." I can remember vividly it was strange, how strange it was, but he did die, you know. It's not that it didn't happen, but it did happen. You know, and we do believe in living hereafter, as Christians, you know.
And we very strong, very powerful in our faith, and Emmett's mother, you know, during the 67 years, or the 60 years or so, whatever she lived, you never heard about her havin' ill will, hate, or any animosity. As far she she's concerned, it's like they don't exist.
She said, "I feel sorry for 'em." And that's not human, that's not human nature. But our faith was very strong, and we both grew up the same way, because that's what we were taught. And the Bible says, "Love your enemies." And only thing bothered me is that the South is the Bible Belt, and they were more religious. And when you read from the same Bible, how can you do what you did to people, readin' the same Bible? How can you teach those things, the animosity, and the hate?
Lee: How has Emmett's death shaped your life, and everything that came after? How did it change you? Or should I say, did it change you in any way do you think?
Parker: Changed me sh-- radically, tremendously.
Lee: As Reverend Parker grew older, he kept coming back to the promise he made to God the night Emmett was kidnapped, that he would dedicate his life to Christ. He worked as a barber and a photographer until one day he could no longer ignore that promise. Finally, in 1978, Reverend Wheeler Parker became an ordained minister.
Parker: I've never been the same. And now I'm the happiest man in the world. I'm a old happy man now. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: That's the best kinda happy to be.
Lee: If Emmett were alive today, he would be 80 years old. But instead of growing old, Emmett became an unwilling martyr, his named etched into our public consciousness, forever a boy taken too soon, and too violently, with a legacy that still inspires a fight for Black humanity to this day. More than 60 years later, Reverend Parker still misses his younger cousin, but he knows that in death, Emmett changed America.
Parker: Because he still speaks from the grave, Emmett did more in death than he did if he had lived. Now they just had the Emmett Till Law, Antilynching Law, but he represents somethin' in life, so it brought about a great change.
Lee: On another note, so there's been much progress, but as you said, there's still a lot of work to do in this country in terms of protecting Black life and justice. And I wonder if when you hear about the case, like, of Tamir Rice who was 12 years old killed in Ohio, and you think about all the other cases, of all the other young people in particular killed by police and vigilantes, every time you hear these news stories, do you think back to what happened to your cousin Emmett?
Parker: Almost undoubtedly. Yeah, it's one of the first things. Especially that George Floyd, man. That spirit is still there. Remember I said laws make you behave better, but it doesn't legislate the heart. There's a revival on racism under the last administration.
I drive on the highway the law says 55, but in my heart I've got to drive faster than 55. So that spirit is still out there, but now I know if I drive over 55 it could be what? Handled. If you mess up now the law goin' come after you. Look at what happened in Georgia. They gave those guys life, man, can you imagine?
Lee: That's crazy, yeah.
Parker: I'm scared to talk too much. I'm scared they might change it. I'm waitin' to see if they gonna let 'em--
Parker: --out next week. So that's a miracle. What they did, that's unbelievable almost. What happened out there, gave all three of 'em life, didn't they?
Lee: Yeah, all three of 'em.
Parker: Man, that's in Georgia, down South? That is unbelievable. And after George Floyd murder, the next day they had whites protesting. We used to have to protest by ourselves. There's still some fools out there now.
Lee: Yeah, right, right.
Parker: But we've made progress, and I thank God for it.
Lee: Reverend Wheeler Parker is 83 years old today, and still lives in Argo, Illinois with his wife, Dr. Marvel Parker. He's still working to keep his cousin's memory alive including a campaign to preserve Robert's Temple Church of God, the small church where tens of thousands attended Emmett's open casket funeral. Last week, Reverend and Dr. Parker were at the White House to see President Biden sign the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.
Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod, and you can Tweet me using my full name, @TrymaineLee, or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCUni.com, that was IntoAmerica@NBC, and the letters U-N-I.com. Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.