George Will

ALSIP, Ill. -- In a cemetery here, a few miles southwest of Chicago's city limits, Simeon Wright, 62, a trim, articulate semi-retired pipe fitter, and a deacon in the Church of God in Christ, recently attended a ceremony at an unquiet grave. The gravestone has a weatherproof locket with a photograph of a boy, and these carved words:

     Emmett L. Till
     In loving memory
     July 25, 1941     August 28, 1955

     Wright participated in a service for the reinterment of the body of the boy with whom Wright, then 12, was sharing a bed in the Mississippi home of Wright's father 50 years ago. It was the night that lit the fuse of the civil rights revolution.

     The eulogy delivered at the reinterment -- Emmett's remains had been exhumed as part of the reopened investigation of his murder -- was by Wheeler Parker, a barber and minister in nearby Argo, Ill. The night of Aug. 28, 1955, Parker, then 16, also was sleeping in the Wright home. Two white men, one with a .45 caliber pistol, shone a flashlight in Parker's face and one of them said, ``Where's the fat boy from Chicago?"

     A few weeks before, Wright's father, a preacher in the vicinity of Money, Miss., had come to Chicago to deliver a eulogy for a former parishioner, one of the hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians of the great migration -- an $11, 16-hour ride on the Illinois Central to Chicago. A week or so later, Mamie Till -- Emmett's mother -- put Emmett on the Illinois Central to visit his great uncle, and cousin Simeon.

     Three days into his visit, at the ramshackle Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market, Emmett, 14, whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. Three nights later, her husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam came for Emmett. Simeon's father pleaded, ``Why not give the boy a whipping and leave it at that?'' They beat him to an unrecognizable pulp, knocked out his right eye, shot him, tied a 75-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

     Mississippi authorities had made the Chicago undertaker agree to keep Emmett's casket nailed closed, but they met their match in his mother. An estimated 50,000 Chicagoans saw the body in the open casket. Jet magazine ran a picture. ``When people saw what had happened to my son,'' Mamie Till said, ``men stood up who had never stood up before.'' And one woman refused to stand up: 69 days after the acquittal of Emmett's murderers, and 300 miles away, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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