Fear, not color, is what allows evil to flourish

Published 12:01 am Sunday, October 24, 2010

OXFORD — Imagine being a 12-year-old in the Mississippi Delta, the youngest son in the big family of a proud preacher. Imagine days filled with hoeing and harvesting cotton, nights around a plentiful table blessed by the preacher — as stern a disciplinarian as he was a Christian. Imagine a mother who “sings herself happy.”

Imagine hearing that your 14-year-old cousin, Bobo, is coming to visit from the Big City. You know his life in Chicago must be far more fascinating than your own, You know when he arrives he’s going to tell you about it — the parks, the amusement rides, the exotic foods and something called snow.

Simeon Wright doesn’t have to imagine any of that. It’s the story from his life.

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Bobo did come. Bobo picked cotton one day, the Monday after he arrived. Then he informed his aunt he could do it no more.

Wednesday, after Simeon and the others came in from the fields, they all loaded up in a car and headed for Bryant’s Grocery just up Dark Fear Road in the tiny town of Money. The six probably didn’t have a folding dollar among them, but they could get treats at the store.

All went well, Simeon remembers, until they were gathered back around their car. Carolyn Bryant, who had been tending the cash register, walked out of the store and toward her vehicle. Without any reason and perhaps without thinking, Bobo whistled at her.

Showing off.

Carolyn Bryant was white. Bobo, Simeon and the others were black kids. That meant — and they all knew it — a big-time line had been crossed.

Bobo, four nights later, paid for it with his life.

Simeon, now 68, visited the campus of the University of Mississippi this month. With his wife, Annie, he told about the night Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband, and J.W. Milam, Roy’s stepbrother, would force their way into the Wright home and force Bobo to dress and leave with them.

Simeon Wright later learned Bobo’s real name, Emmett Till. And he did sense that the murder of his cousin would have worldwide implications (most say it triggered the Civil Rights Movement) especially after Bryant and Milam were found innocent of murder and not even tried for kidnapping, a crime they admitted.

“Were there any white people who spoke up, who tried to help?” one student asked Wright.

“They were afraid, too afraid,” was the response.

Wright went on to explain that in the Mississippi of his youth color meant everything, but there was a subtext in which everyone knew the real player wasn’t race but the ongoing struggle of good vs. evil.

In many accounts of the Till abduction and murder, including Wright’s, it is reported without elaboration that there were other men — black men — with Bryant and Milam that night. Forced co-conspirators who provided directions to Preacher Wright’s home? The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files are replete with names of black “informants” planted by white organizations to report on voter registration and other activities of fellow blacks.

Fear, no doubt, motivated them as Wright said it did the whites who recognized the injustice in 1955 — but remain silent.

Speaking of silence, that was Wright’s choice. He and his family left Mississippi for Argo, Ill., after the trial. He settled there and by the age of 24 he became so solid in his own Christian faith that he bears no one ill will. There’s no anger in the man who worked as a pipefitter and now relies on a well-earned pension. Other than family, few knew of his relation to Emmett Till.

The thin book he published this year (Simeon’s Story/Lawrence Hill Books) is, he said, his reaction to a lifetime of reading others’ accounts and being peeved by misstatements and exaggerations. “I didn’t care to talk about any of this,” he said. “Annie changed my mind.”

The struggle against second-class citizenship based on race continues and is not at all a problem unique to the American South, he told an auditorium filled with students. In his own quiet, self-effacing way, he also challenged them to keep learning, to be the generation that conquers fear and to recognize this nation’s “race problem” is not about black and white but right and wrong.

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.” Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that a couple of centuries ago. Simeon Wright didn’t learn it from a book. He didn’t have to. He learned it when his cousin Bobo visited from Chicago.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.