IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Wheeler Parker, eyewitness to Emmett Till’s abduction in 1955, speaks out

The Rev. Wheeler Parker was a teenager when Till, his cousin, was murdered at age 14. In our interview, he discusses faith, resiliency, apathy — and what he talked about with President Biden.

By

My colleague Zahara Hill and I are chugging along with “The Reconstruction,” our ongoing celebration of the people fighting to rebuild America’s historical memory of Black history as conservatives try to tear it down.

I recently sat for an interview with the Rev. Wheeler Parker, an activist and author who is the last surviving witness to the abduction of Emmett Till, his cousin, in 1955. Ever since Till’s murder in Mississippi, the 85-year-old Parker has fought to ensure that the accurate story of what took place is told. And last year, his family notched a victory when President Joe Biden announced the development of a national monument honoring Till and his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Parker, logically, was asked to introduce the president at last year’s event.

So it was a privilege to talk to him — about faith, perseverance, apathy among young people, and the convos he had with President Biden.

Check out the video of our full chat above. Below are some highlights, edited for clarity and length.

JJ: What was Emmett like as a kid? Often when we talk about vaunted civil rights figures, we lose some of their humanity. And that’s why I think it would be great to hear from someone who knew Emmett well.

WP: In the Bible, they say a man is known by his doings; people see us as we are. To see Emmett, the way he was and the person he was, to put it short: fun-loving prankster. I’ve never seen him have a dull day in his life. Full of life, and that’s what you had to be if you were around him. He just enjoyed life to the fullest. Great humanitarian, and he was just into everything! He’s gonna be the center of attraction in everything, right there. You can’t talk about him without smiling or laughing — as long as you don’t talk about, you know, how he ended up. But he’s gonna be the center of attraction.

JJ: You mentioned “how he ended up.” That’s such a major part of his story — and it’s a part of your story, because you’ve taken it upon yourself to ensure that the public knows the true story of his abduction. What has that been like for you emotionally to take on that burden?

WP: The story of Emmett Till has a lot of mixed emotions. And I think the thing that affected me the most was, shortly after he was taken, the way the Look magazine article portrayed him. I’ve lived with that for 69 years, and it still resonates with me. In spite of all the good that has come out of it, that’s still foremost in my mind. It impacted me so that I still live with that today — the way they portrayed him. It was terrible then, and it’s still terrible.

JJ: What in particular stuck with you?

WP: Emmett Till was not the first person that suffered those kinds of atrocities. But his story, usually, it’s swept under the rug or kind of covered up, sugar-coated, “it’s the way of life” and they moved on. But that story went out to the whole world — it went everywhere. So, since it went everywhere, now people are a little more sensitive about how — they’re more conscious about their mistreatment of Black people, it’s not well-accepted. And it started to wear on people. So now they’ve got to try to protect their image: “He deserved what he got.” And that’s the way the [the Look article] portrayed him. That article was horrible, it was horrible. It’s amazing how you can portray people in such a way — and if you do it for a long time, people start believing it. And I lived with that real hard for 30 years, just like he got what he deserved. We didn’t talk about it. The story and way we see Emmett now is a whole lot different than it was from ’55 to ’85.

JJ: Yes.

WP: The country looked very different. Now, it’s like he’s an icon and everybody wants a piece of him. Not back in the day. We didn’t talk about it to our family — Black folks — because they said my grandfather wouldn’t have let that happen. White people were saying he got what he deserved. To see and experience it the way I’m experiencing it now — it’s a whole, whole different world.

JJ: Did the Look article inspire you to go on this journey to ensure that the accurate telling was told?

WP: You know, I don’t know how to say that, because it was painful always and we didn’t have control. Like, I’m talking to you now, but I didn’t have access to media to tell my story. When I got a chance to tell it, like I’m telling you, I told it. The media was not interested in coming to us until after that 1985 documentary by NBC. That started changing everything. Rich Samuels, a guy out of Chicago, Channel 5 NBC — that started turning things around.

WP: He interviewed us, and he told what we said. So now, we’re being heard. Me and my Uncle Simeon [Wright] — we’re eyewitnesses. For 30 years, when I’d start telling my story, they’d say “Wheeler Parker alleged …” I’d say, “Alleged? I’m an eyewitness!” I watch “America: Fact vs. Fiction,” and it’s amazing how fiction or lies can spread. It’s kind of like the Titanic and saying it didn’t happen at all. And that’s the same thing with a lot of our stories. We do a lot of embellishing in our country, and Emmett’s story doesn’t sit well with me being embellished at all. Tell it like it is — the naked truth. Like his mother said: “Let the world see.”

JJ: Yes.

WP: It’s not a pleasant story, so it’s incriminating whether you want it to be or not. When you tell of the racism — racism is not pleasant at all. And you know what? Racism ain’t going nowhere. It’s gonna be there. And young people, they don’t think it’s changing. But, I mean, they don’t know where we came from.

JJ: Can you delve into that some more? I think your perspective on this is helpful. There are lots of young folks who might feel disaffected or apathetic because things aren’t changing at the pace they want. What do you say to them?

WP: If they want a quick fix, it’s not gonna happen. Microwave changes are not gonna happen. I was at the signing of the federal anti-lynching bill with Ida B. Wells’ great-granddaughter. In her speech, she said: “My great-grandmother was here 100 years ago.” We were sitting there all together, President Biden and a whole cadre of people. And she said, “It took 100 years — 200 tries — to get an anti-lynching bill signed.”

WP: And I almost got an attitude, but then God showed me. I look at the history of America — the wheels of justice grind. We’ve made some changes, but they grind slow. And Martin Luther King addressed that a lot: He said gradualism is almost like do-nothingism. He did a great speech on that. That’s the way it is in America. Change comes, but sometimes it seems like you’re going backward. The shooting of young Black boys — when I see that happen, I see Emmett Till.

JJ: Yes.

WP: The George Floyd case really, really affected me, and it really caught me in that the next day, we had diversity in the protests. Usually, we had to protest by ourselves. But when George Floyd was killed, there were whites out there in droves, man, out there protesting with us. To me, that was a first. And we come through these changes, and young kids don’t know what we’ve come through. If you didn’t live in Mississippi, or in the South during that time, you had no idea what it was like. Because it was covered up. People got killed for reckless eyeballing. My uncle lived in Duck Hill, Mississippi, and would talk about the hangings right down the street. My father slept with his gun overnight. So they have no idea about that.

JJ: I think part of the effort by conservatives to erase Black history is to prevent young white people from standing up to racism. Because they know if a lot of white folks see what has been done to Black folks throughout history, they’ll be spurred to action. Do you agree?

WP: The humanism will come out of them. It’s gonna come out. Like the George Floyd case — those kids, those white people out there said, “What?!” I’m from Mississippi, I’m 85 years old next month, so I know where we came from. See, that was mind-boggling: They were fighting with us against this situation. And it was so touching. It affected me in such a way that I’m still impacted by it.

JJ: What does your knowledge as a reverend teach you about faith and believing that change will come?

WP: We were very religious. And when you’re taught this from zero, it’s innately a part of you. Emmett Till’s grandmother started a church in her house. And forgiveness was a great part of our belief. That stuff was in us. So when Mamie Till did what she had to do — a good example — she was already prepared. If you listen to her reconciliation speech — you gotta hear it, you gotta hear it, powerful.

WP: Everybody in the world, all over the world, needs to hear that and learn how to get along with people. She said it’s like those people [who killed Emmett] don’t even exist. She was saying the same thing I had, because we come under the same banner: Hate destroys. I can’t afford the luxury of hate. I have no ill will, animosity or hate, because hate destroys me.

JJ: You mentioned “reconciliation.” It’s hard for me to reconcile with someone who hasn’t admitted the truth. For you personally and your family, how does truth factor into your ability to reconcile with people who were responsible for Emmett’s killing or who have tried to paper over it?

WP: I think time, and where we are now, speaks volumes to the way that we handle it. And we should still continue to handle it like we do, because there are some sensible people in the world. Martin Luther King said, “Truth crushed to the earth will rise again.” It’s gonna come back. It comes slow, it goes gradually, but it’s gonna survive. We’re reconciliatory because God says so.

Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. with President Joe Biden.
The Rev. Wheeler Parker and President Joe Biden at the White House on July 25, 2023.Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images file

JJ: Last year, you introduced President Biden at a ceremony announcing the new national monument to Emmett and Mamie Till. What was that like for you?

WP: I think what comes to play is 68 years — that happened 68 years ago. In that time, you learn how to pace yourself. In the Bible, it tells us to be anxious for nothing; don’t get in a hurry about nothing. In everything, by prayer and supplication, go slow, stay calm. And that’s what I like about Biden — he’s been there for a while. He’s been there long enough, he’s cool and calm. He knows his way around, and I admired him. And when he started talking about Satchel Paige — now that’s my man. [laughs]

JJ: [laughs] Oh, you had some baseball talk?

WP: Yeah, we had some baseball talk. So we enjoyed one another, you know? And when you get 80-something, you learn how to be calm, be cool. You don’t get overly excited about things because you’ve had some ups and downs, and you know things can go sour. And you’re appreciative of when good things do come. You appreciate it, you thank God, and you appreciate people who are doing it. And you always see how much work you gotta do. It lets you know how far you’ve come, how you got here, and what it’s gonna take to go farther.

news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news