He was with Emmett Till the night he was murdered. The horror haunts him still
The horror happened 67 years ago, but it never left the Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. It never will.
There are times even now, when he will break down in tears when he describes what happened that night in Mississippi in 1955. Still, the story must be told.
"It changed my life," said the 83-year-old Parker. "I promised God if he just saved my life, I was going to do right."
Parker was just 16 years old when his cousin and best friend, 14-year-old Emmett Till, was lynched. Till's murder would spur international outrage and propel the fight for justice and equality. Parker is the last living witness of the kidnapping.
"We're here now because he still speaks from the grave. His story resonates and brought about a lot of changes," said Parker, who is now the pastor of the Illinois church founded by Till's grandmother.
Parker spoke to NPR as a part of a Weekend Edition series shining a spotlight on the Civil Rights generation. In his new book, A Few Days Full of Trouble, Parker tells the story of Till's death, but also of his life.
The best of friends
Before Till became a symbol for the civil rights movement, he was just a child who was silly, brave and adored by his family. Their nickname for him was Bobo.
"He was a fun-loving prankster, loved to tell jokes, stuttered all of the time. We do not really emphasize his stutter enough," Parker said.
The stutter was the result of a bout with polio, but it didn't slow Till down. According to Parker, Till was always the center of attention. The two of them were very close, living next door to each other in Chicago.
"Emmett didn't have any siblings, so when his mother took him on trips or fishing or something, she took me along. We were bonded like that."
Parker said that when Till learned he'd be traveling to Mississippi in the summer of 1955 to visit his grandfather, he pleaded with the family to let him tag along.
"They finally decided to let him go. And that's how we went - ended up going together," Parker said.
Danger in the Jim Crow south
That trip would end in tragedy. Till was not familiar with the strict racist dynamics that governed every interaction between Black people and white people in the south. The slightest infraction of the mores of the Jim Crow south could lead to violence and death.
During the trip, Parker and Till and other relatives went to a store. On the way out, Till whistled at a white woman.
"He loved to have pranks, so he whistled. He gave her the wolf whistle," Parker said. "When he did that, we could have died. Nobody said, 'Let's go.' We just made a beeline for the car."
"He was joking," Parker said. "He wanted to make us laugh. When he saw that we didn't laugh and we were scared, he's frightened now. And we jumped in the car, and we're going on this gravel road. And there's a car coming behind us. Dust is flying everywhere. And someone said, 'They're after us, they're after us.' And of course, we jumped out of the car and into the cotton field, and the car went on by."
After that encounter on the road, Till begged his relatives to not tell Parker's grandfather what happened.
A few days later, in the middle of the night, white men came to the house where Till and Parker were staying.
"I heard them talking at 2:30 in the morning," Parker recounted. "They said: 'You got two boys here from Chicago.' And, of course, when I hear this, I'm thinking — I said, man, we're getting ready to die. I said, these people finna kill us."
He remembers trembling with fear.
"I'm shaking like a leaf on the tree in the dark of a thousand midnights. It's so dark, you can't see your hand before your face. So, when they came in with the gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I closed my eyes to be shot. Horrible feeling. Horrible, horrible feeling."
When the men found Till, he was in bed, Parker said.
"Then they aroused him. And I think they told him to put his shoes on, and he wanted to put his socks on. It was just pure hell over there. Emmett had no idea who he was dealing with. He had no idea what was about to happen to him. He had no way of knowing because he didn't know that way of life. And he left, and that's the last time we saw him alive."
Keeping Till's memory alive
After Till was murdered, his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, rallied to make sure the world never forget what happened to her son.
"I tell people, Emmett, Bobo, was not the first person that suffered at the hands of Southerners," Parker said. "But this story, as God would have it, went ballistic. It went everywhere. And they — the whites — were not used to stories getting out like this."
Parker never talked to Mamie about what happened to her son.
"She never asked me what happened," he said. "I always had survivor's guilt. You know, how did she feel about me being here? Her son didn't come back. So we never discussed it at all. She just recognized that I was the one with her son. I came back, and her son didn't."
But, years later she would ask Parker to carry on his legacy.
"We have an Emmett Till memorial center. And she came and she saw what we were doing. She said: 'I want you to carry on the work.' And I remember saying, yes, but inside, I said, what can I do, what can I do? Not knowing that I'll be catapulted to where I am now. God put things in place, where - when it's God's will, it's his bill. He going to make sure he put the fire in you to do what you're supposed to do."
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