Rev. Wheeler Parker was there in the bedroom when Emmett Till was abducted. His memoir recounts the 70-year push for federal charges
Christopher Borrelli | (TNS) Chicago Tribune
The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. lives just outside Justice.
This has been true his whole life. In the geographic sense, he has lived in Summit (or the subdivision of Argo, annexed long ago into Summit) for most of his 83 years. Summit ambles alongside the Des Plaines River, a bit north of the village of Justice. In a more poetic sense, though, Parker has also lived outside justice since 1955, when he visited Mississippi with his cousin Emmett Till. He is the last witness to the encounter that sealed Till’s fate and the last living witness to Till’s abduction four nights later.
Other than Carolyn Bryant, whose accusation unleashed the full wrath of Jim Crow.
She’s almost 90 today. Till was murdered at 14.
The irony of having lived outside Justice most of his life — not to mention the twin irony of being born in a Mississippi town named Slaughter — is not exactly lost on Parker.
“I mean, some things are literally true,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, fixing his gaze, grinning tightly: “You do live in America, right? You have heard about its history?”
There’s a haunting moment in Parker’s new memoir, “A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till” (written with Northwestern University journalism professor Christopher Benson), in which he wonders what Till was thinking as he was led to his death. The story has been told often: In 1955, Bryant alleged that Emmett Till, a Black teenager from Chicago visiting his relatives, wolf-whistled at her in a grocery store. Four days later, in the middle of the night, there was a knock on the door of the home where Till slept. Two men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, carrying guns and flashlights, ordered Till to dress and drove off with him. Till was tortured, lynched and shot in the head. His death served as a catalyst for the nascent civil rights movement.
What’s less known is Parker’s burden.
What it was like to be in that bedroom, how he felt unable to move. That ceaseless weight, he writes, “connected me and preserved my compassion” for strangers, a pain he channeled into a lifetime of service in his ministry. But some questions never fade: Could Parker have saved his cousin? Was Till wondering why Parker, then 16, had not leapt out of bed and taken on two adults with shotguns? “As he was forced along his death march,” Parker writes, “did (Till) think it would turn out OK, that somehow, some way, his cousin would come after him?”
Parker has spent much of his life — with Benson at his side for the past several years — wondering, adding flesh to Till the historical figure, pursuing something like a resolution.
But as Benson puts it, “Justice would mean Emmett coming home alive. Nobody’s been called to answer for him. So there can be no justice. What we want is accountability.”
Still, he adds, hands splayed: What does that even look like almost 70 years later?
A visit to Parker’s office on a February morning offers ideas. The small, narrow room is tucked beside the chapel of his church, the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ, formed in 1926 by Alma Carthan, a grandmother of Emmett Till. Parker has been a pastor here since the late 1970s. His office walls are partly wood paneling, covered in images from the church’s history and, more recently, photos of Parker with President Joe Biden. He visited Washington last year, as a White House guest when the president signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Law, remarkably the very first law to classify lynching as a federal hate crime. A decade earlier, Parker was also instrumental in getting the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act to carry his cousin’s name. Benson, who is also a lawyer, helped Parker navigate legislative hoops. No one was ever charged with Till’s murder, but as Parker sees it: If you violate these laws now, you answer to Till anyway.
Parker and Till grew up down the street from the church. Parker’s childhood home is gone, but Till’s remains. Parker is working with the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and the National Parks Conservation Association to create a noncontiguous park that includes this street, Till’s grave in Burr Oak Cemetery and locations in Mississippi.
The neighborhood, Parker said, has changed. There were more Black people then. Classrooms were much smaller. Chickens and cows roamed around. Their street went unpaved.
“But there were bricks,” said Benson.
“Bricks?” laughed Parker. “We weren’t that fortunate. Holes!”
Parker and Benson are touring a lot these days; Parker, always a popular school speaker during Black History Month, is partly promoting the book, partly working with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which created a traveling exhibition about Till.
Benson met Parker decades ago when he was working on a memoir with Mamie Till-Mobley, Till’s mother. Parker, however, wasn’t interested in his own book. The story had been repeated so often. On the other hand, he occasionally heard from people that Till got what he deserved. He would hear his cousin described in unrecognizable ways. He never could shake a 1956 Look magazine piece that questioned Till’s character. “The parts that weren’t right got repeated so often,” he said, “you felt helpless to correct it.”
Then, in 2017, Duke University historian Timothy Tyson released “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which, on page 6, made headlines: Bryant supposedly told Tyson that she had lied.
Asked about her accusation, she’s quoted as saying: “That part’s not true.”
Parker thought it would change everything. To the extent some people still believed a whistle was sufficient reason to murder a Black teenager, he assumed the truth would come to light. “A Few Days Full of Trouble” revisits Bryant’s quotation over and over, smartly making it a vehicle to revisit Parker’s years of pursuing justice and legislation. Tyson’s book would lead federal officials to reopen the investigation; Parker, contacted by the FBI, soon became a regular resource. “The news of that quote resonated so powerfully,” Benson said. “So much so that people still believe she actually confessed.”
The problem, as “A Few Days Full of Trouble” explains, was that investigators could not find her quotation in Tyson’s notes. Bryant herself insists she never confessed to lying. Parker also details the discovery of an arguably more damning find: an unserved 1955 warrant for the arrest of Carolyn Bryant. But it proves to be another dead end. Roy Bryant and his brother were acquitted of murder in 1955 by an all-white jury, only to admit to the killing later to Look magazine. Last year, despite the unserved warrant, a Mississippi jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant, citing insufficient evidence.
Parker’s goal now is not conventional justice, but to correct the narrative of his cousin. Even as a teenager, when he read that Look piece, “something inside of me became broken. I was like Pilate in the Bible: ‘What is truth?’ I lost respect. I guess it’s poetic …”
“License?” Benson asked.
“Yeah, except I take things literally. I didn’t think grown-ups told lies! Kids, I knew, lie to escape a whipping. But adults? I lived in a naive world. My wife still thinks I live there. You know, a lot of people in this neighborhood knew Emmett. He had a lot of relatives.”
“… Who speak up to represent the family,” Benson mumbled.
Parker laughed: “Oh, yeah! A lot of ‘cousins’ around, if you know what I mean.”
He’s mostly stopped watching movies and documentaries about his cousin; he hasn’t seen “Till,” last year’s historical drama about Mamie Till-Mobley’s pursuit of justice. He mentioned the landmark 1987 PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” and how one of its talking heads suggested misleadingly to being an eyewitness. “That never was corrected.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and sat back in his chair.
He sees ghosts everywhere. He saw the ghost of Emmett Till in the news coming out of Memphis, about five Black police officers killing 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop. He saw that same ghost in Minneapolis, after the killing of George Floyd. Parker and Benson are working with the Massachusetts-based educational group Facing History & Ourselves to bring the lessons of Till’s murder into classrooms. But now Parker anticipates a backlash, to get lumped into the misinformed descriptions of critical race theory: As it was in 1955, you don’t have to be right to demonize someone; you just have to say it a lot.
“Tell a big lie and tell it often,” Parker sighed. “That’s old news.”
He moved slowly through his quiet church, passing empty pews and instruments waiting for their players. He clicked on a light and descended the stairs to the basement. Till’s family held fish fries to keep this church going. Parker has 100 congregants now, a fairly small group. But he’s third-generation; his grandfather was a pastor. He has become, even beyond the story of his famous cousin, a steward of history. He found a banner with photos of the church and opened it across Sunday school desks.
He settled on a black-and-white class portrait and ran a finger over the rows of children: “This girl’s still living. Also, she’s living, he’s living, he’s gone, she’s gone, he’s living.”
Parker turns 84 in March.
He wants to make it to 90, but he feels the clock acutely. “You become aware you don’t have much time, and you’re OK with it. When I was 16 and they came for Emmett, I was praying, I was talking to God. I didn’t want to die when I was only 16. I don’t want to die now, either! But you do accept you had a good run. You made a difference. It’s enough.”
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