Simeon Wright, the cousin of Emmett Till who witnessed Emmett’s kidnapping and was the last to see Emmett alive, died Monday morning in his home in Countryside, Ill., at the age of 74.
Wright’s wife, Annie, confirmed that her husband had died after suffering from complications from a form of bone cancer, the Chicago Tribune reports.
For part of his youth, Wright grew up in Money, Miss., where, in 1955, his then-14-year-old cousin Emmett Till had traveled from Chicago to visit him and other relatives for the summer.
Wright, then 12 years old, was with Emmett when the 14-year-old was said to have whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, at a convenience store as a prank. In 2009, Wright published a book telling his account of what happened, writing that after Emmett whistled at the woman, he swore his cousin to secrecy because he did not want to be sent home to Chicago.
However, that night everything changed when Wright awoke to find two white men taking his cousin away.
“When I opened my eyes, I saw two white men at the foot of my bed. One had a flashlight and a gun,” Wright told a Tribune columnist in 2014. “They ordered me back down. Emmett was still sleeping. They had to shake him to wake him up.”
Emmett was ordered out of bed at gunpoint by Roy Bryant, Carolyn Bryant’s then husband, and J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant’s half-brother.
Wright was one of the last people to see his young cousin alive.
Shortly after he was taken away from his family’s home, Emmett was beaten, tortured, mutilated and ultimately shot to death. Bryant and Milam then took his brutalized body, wrapped a gin fan around the teen’s neck and sank his body in a local river.
The two men escaped justice in a sham of a trial after an all-white, all-male jury in the Deep South found them not guilty in a little over an hour. After the men were acquitted, they later admitted to their despicable acts in a magazine interview.
After the trial, Wright and his family packed up and moved to Argo, Ill., where Wright attended Argo High School and later went on to work as a pipe fitter.
Annie Wright said that for most of his life, her husband preferred to live quietly in Chicago, but starting in the 2000s, he became more vocal about what he witnessed and the lack of justice that his family received.
“He really wanted people to know what happened that night,” his wife said. “There were so many versions. When I first met him, he never talked about it. But then he wanted people to know the injustices and indignities.”
Airicka Gordon-Taylor, a spokesperson for Emmett’s family and the co-founding director of the Mamie Till-Mobley Memorial Foundation, said that although the media spotlight was justifiably on Emmett, the rest of the family’s stories were sometimes pushed to the background.
“People often talked about Emmett, but Simeon had a story of his own,” Gordon-Taylor said. “That incident changed him as a person. It ripped his own family apart. It disrupted his life. He became bitter and angry.”
Annie Wright said that Wright’s anger was only subdued through religious conversion.
“He got through it with the Lord’s help,” his wife added. “He channeled his energy into mentoring young boys and trying to teach them how to set goals and manage life’s setbacks and obstacles.”
New fuel was added to the fire of Emmett’s death after Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman who accused him of whistling at her, admitted that she falsely testified that the teen had physically, verbally and physically assaulted her during the incident.
The admission prompted Emmett’s family to once again call for a new investigation into his murder.
Wright is survived by his wife and other extended relatives. His funeral service will be held Sept. 16 at 11 a.m. at Monument of Faith Church in Chicago.
Read more at the Chicago Tribune.