than six decades since the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the
African-American teenager whose 1955 lynching helped spark the civil
rights movement, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., a cousin who is the last
living witness to his abduction, still struggles with the horrific
“Sometimes I think about Emmett and it feels like a nightmare that
didn’t really happen,” Parker said. “I could hate the people who did
this to him, but I come from a religious family and we were taught not
to hate. Hate destroys the hater.”
Parker discussed the killing that took place in Mississippi when Till
was visiting family 65 years ago during an event Thursday at Rutgers
University-New Brunswick. He reflected on his cousin’s personality and
upbringing in Chicago, and the inaccuracies of what Parker said has
become one of the most embellished stories in American history.
The two were together when Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white
woman, at her family’s grocery store. Four days later, Parker said he
witnessed Till’s abduction at gunpoint at his great-uncle’s home.
Fearing for his life, Parker immediately returned to Chicago, and soon
after Till’s tortured body was found in the Tallahatchie River. Bryant’s
husband and half-brother were acquitted of murder by an all-white jury
but later admitted their guilt.
“Till did whistle,” he said. “Some people don’t want to think that he
did, but he did and when it happened, we could have all fainted. He was
so afraid and knew he messed up. He was fun-loving and carefree, but
that didn’t fly in the South and this was a very different time.”
Parker remembers that on the night of Till’s abduction he felt that death was near.
“A man had a pistol in one hand and a flashlight in the other, and
they passed right by me, and then they passed by my cousin Curtis,” he
said. “At around 3 a.m., they took Emmett. We stayed up all night in
silence. It seemed like daylight would never come.”
Parker plans to share his experiences in his upcoming memoir, A Few Days: Full of Trouble,
scheduled to be released after the FBI concludes its investigation into
Till’s case, which was reopened in 2017 after newly discovered
“All history to some degree has been embellished, but Till has been
demonized in accounts from people who were not there and I want to
correct the inaccuracies and share what really happened,” said Parker,
who described Till as a fun-loving prankster who was always the center
The Rutgers event, Love, Forgiveness and Reconciliation,
was hosted by the Department of American Studies in the School of Arts
and Sciences and co-sponsored by the Department of History, Douglass
Residential College, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, the Department of
Africana Studies and the Program in Criminal Justice.
The event grew out the course “Remembering Emmett Till”
that Christine Zemla, a professor in the Department of American
Studies, created after visiting the Mississippi Delta over the past 15
years and feeling that Till’s story kept her coming back.
“I didn’t learn his story until I got to college and I wondered, ‘Why
didn’t I learn about this?’” said Zemla, who invited Parker to speak
at Rutgers after meeting him last summer at the Tallahatchie Courthouse
where Till’s murder trial took place.
When asked by a student for advice on how to resist the urge to
become combative in a society that seems to be digressing in racial
equality, Parker said there is always a choice.
“You can’t change things by being upset internally,” he said. “You
can’t change things with mental anguish. So, what you can do is to think
positive. We are all recipients of ideas. All we can do is make