Forgiving Racial Injustice: Simeon's Story

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On August 28, 1955, Chicago teen Emmett Till was kidnapped and lynched for whistling at a white woman in the segregated South while visiting his family in Money, Miss.

Emmett's younger cousin, Simeon Wright, watched as two men abducted the boy. Those responsible were never convicted.

Decades later, Wright told CBN News he's grown to forgive them - with God's help.

Remembering 55 Years Ago

"At the age of 12, imagine going to sleep at night and waking up the next day and your whole world is upside down," Simeon Wright said, recalling the death of his cousin.

The boys were asleep in the same room when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant showed up at the Wright family's home at 2:30 a.m.

"When they awakened Wheeler (another visiting cousin), they said 'This is the wrong boy. We are looking for the fat boy from Chicago,'" Wright recalled. "They knew who they were looking for. At that time, I weighed about 90 pounds. And Emmett weighed about 140."

Bryant owned the country store where Emmett, Simeon, and Wheeler Parker stopped to buy candy a few days earlier.

"Emmett and I, we had walked out. We were in the store together; we had walked out of the store. Mrs. Bryant came out behind us and she was walking towards her car and Emmett whistled at her and it scared us half to death," Wright said.

The whistle at Carolyn Bryant, Roy Bryant's wife, was a joke to the 14-year-old from Chicago. Emmett was always trying to make his cousins laugh. But he also did not understand the unspoken rules of the segregated south during the Jim Crow era.

"Color didn't mean anything to him," Wright explained. "You are a human being. We are all the same. So he grew up like that."

Till's Disappearance and Death

Simeon calls August 28, 1955 the longest day of his life. It is also the first day there was no laughter in his childhood home. Emmett's body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, tied to a 70 pound cotton gin.

Wright's father, Moses, identified the body before it was returned to Emmett's mother in Chicago. Moses and Mamie Till Mobley are both deceased, but they recalled seeing Emmett's mangled body for the documentary, "The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till."

The Face of Racism

"The body was so badly damaged until we couldn't hardly tell who it was," Moses told Keith Beauchamp, the film's producer. "But he happened to have on a ring with his initials."

Recalling the first time she saw her son's body, Mamie Till-Mobley said, "I didn't see the ear. Where is the ear? And that's when I discovered a hole about here and I could see daylight on the other side."

Mobley wanted the world to see what she saw. She left Emmett's casket open at the funeral for the thousands who came. More people saw his face in Jet magazine, where 12-year-old Simeon saw it for the first time.

"At 12, I did not understand it at all," Wright told CBN News. "But I understood what I saw -- the injustice that took place -- and it affected me."

Ten Years of Anger

It took more than 50 years for Wright to talk about his cousin's death. He shared his pain in his new book Simeon's Story.  It's the very first eyewitness account of Emmett Till's kidnapping.

The all-white jury found J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant not guilty in the murder trial, and there was never a trial for the kidnapping.

"I was enraged and embittered by the verdict. I saw for the first time the evil that was in the heart of the segregationists," Wright wrote in the book. "Needless to say, the death of 'Bobo' and the acquittal of his murderers left a hole in my heart."

Later attempts to bring the trial back to the court have also failed.

"I was angry, yes, because of what happened," Wright said. "The justice system of Mississippi failed us. Our neighbors failed us."

"Leaving that trial and looking at the white population, rejoicing because these men were acquitted," he continued. "My thought was, we had no one to help us."

Wright and his family moved from Mississippi to Chicago not long after the trial. But the distance could not erase his anger. He wanted revenge.

"If I was provoked, I would try to get even," Wright said, recalling at least 10 years of anger. "I remember one occasion there was this young lady in my class from Alabama and she did something -- nothing serious. I think I slapped her."

Finding the Heart to Forgive

Wright turned to alcohol early in his adulthood until an unexpected night at a Chicago bar. He was 22 years old.

"I was sitting in this tavern and I heard the voice of the Lord say, 'If you die in your sins, you are going to hell,'" Wright recalled. "Man I tell you, my life wasn't the same again."

That same voice inspired him eventually to forgive the men responsible for the death of his cousin.

"Forgiveness is something that is not easy," Wright said. "It wasn't an easy process. It is an act of your will -- you have to do it -- and then fight through it. And then the deliverance comes."

At 67 years old, Wright says he has also forgiven Carolyn Bryant, the woman who testified Emmett did more than just whistle. She is also Emmett's only surviving accuser.

"I feel if I met her, she probably could repent of what she did," Wright said. "I think she wants to. But she probably doesn't know how."

Wright added that he would like to meet her some day and show her how.

*Originally aired on August 28, 2010.

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.