Simeon Wright was just 12 years old when he witnessed the 1955 kidnapping of his 14-year-old cousin Emmett Till. Till, nicknamed “Bobo” by his family, was tortured and killed by two white men in Money after allegedly whistling at Carolyn Wright, a white woman, earlier that day. The testimony and bravery of young Wright helped spark the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi.
Wright passed away Monday at the age of 75 after a long battle with bone cancer. Wright visited the Overby Center in 2010 for a panel discussion in which he talked about the trauma of Till’s kidnapping and murder.
“That night was the saddest night,” Wright said. “You could cut the grief with a knife. No one laughed that day. There was no laughter. But we survived.”
In a discussion that included Bill Rose and Dub Shoemaker, Wright left his mark on the Ole Miss campus.
“It took me 55 years to get my foot in the door at Ole Miss,” Wright said during the discussion.
A chance encounter with Dean Will Norton of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media on a student reporting trip through the Delta led to Wright’s appearance at the Overby Center.
“It was a standing-room-only crowd,” Norton said about the panel. “We only had two standing-room-only crowds — one was Shepard Smith and the other Simeon Wright.”
In 2010, Simeon wrote a book about the kidnapping and trial from his own perspective — “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till.” In the book, he corrected mistakes the media had made. Some of these mistakes include the reporting that Till and Wright were solely in Money because they were on a break from their time in the cotton field and that Wright went into the grocery store and dragged his cousin out. Both of these depictions are false.
During the 2010 discussion, Bill Rose, a journalism professor at Ole Miss and longtime field reporter, interviewed Wright about the horrific night he endured and the repercussions of his actions. He asked Wright if he realized this would essentially spark the Civil Rights Movement from that moment on.
“At the time it happened, I didn’t understand that it would spread all over the world,” Wright said.
Even after Till’s killers were acquitted, Wright decided the hate he had in his heart would only lead to violence.
“I’m not bitter, but I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I found at the age of 22 that hatred will kill you or get you killed.”
Key players in the Civil Rights Movement, like Rosa Parks and James Baldwin, were also moved by the story of Till.
“Within months, they had the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks said she was thinking of the boy in Mississippi as she was sitting there and wouldn’t move,” Norton said.
Baldwin was abroad in Europe when he heard the news. He came back to the United States to get involved in this movement that left the South changed forever.
“Emmett Till had already been buried,” Norton said. “They dug him up and shipped him to Chicago. When his mother saw what he looked like, she wanted the whole world to see. It was an open casket. People lined up for blocks to see it. And it was the spark that lit the Civil Rights Movement.”
The morning after the Overby Center panel, Associate Dean Charlie Mitchell of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media and Norton took Mr. and Mrs. Wright to Big Bad Breakfast. Norton said when he asked Wright how he was treated during his visit to Ole Miss, he simply replied he was treated like a king. It was quite the leap from how he was treated back in 1955.
“Here was a man who was 12 or 13 years old in 1955,” Norton said. “It would be seven more years before an African-American could enroll at Ole Miss, and now, 55 years later, a place where he could not have been a student when he graduated from high school, he was treated ‘like a king.’”