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Cousin of Emmett Till speaks at Rutgers

Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. was with Emmett Till the night of his kidnapping in 1955.
Photo by Courtesy of Cheryl Evans PedersenReverend Wheeler Parker Jr. was with Emmett Till the night of his kidnapping in 1955.

Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., the cousin of Emmett Till and one of the last people to see him before his death, spoke about his experiences on Thursday night at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The event was hosted by the Department of American Studies with the help of the Department of History, the Program in Criminal Justice, Africana studies, Douglass Residential College and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center. 

Christine Zemla, professor in the Department of American Studies, developed the “Remembering Emmett Till” course and invited Parker Jr. to speak at the University. At the beginning of the event, she explained the background of Till’s murder, based on information provided by Parker Jr. 

She said Till, a Black 14-year-old from Chicago, traveled to Mississippi with Parker Jr. and their grandfather in 1955 to visit family. During that time, Parker Jr. witnessed Till whistle at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, which lead to his kidnapping and murder by Roy Bryant and John William “JW” Milam. His killers were not found guilty but later confessed to the crime.

Parker Jr. said for a while, he and his family found it difficult to talk about what happened to Till. He said he realized the importance of sharing his experiences because unpleasant moments of history can be repeated if people do not learn from them.

“If you didn’t live during that time or experience it, you have no idea what it’s like,” Parker Jr. said. 

Parker Jr. said during the summer, his family was concerned about Till taking a trip to visit relatives in the South with his grandfather because he had a playful attitude that could offend white Southerners. 

“(The family’s concern) was understandable because (Till) was a jokester. In the South, that didn’t work,” Parker Jr. said. “He had to know all the right words to say. And when you go South, they’re going to know you’re from the North, and they’re going to quiz you and question you … and if you don’t get it right, you could be in trouble real quick.” 

He said Till insisted on joining him and their grandfather on the trip but Parker Jr. remained concerned about Till’s language. Parker Jr. said during their trip, he visited a local store with Till and a few other relatives. While outside the store, Carolyn Bryant came out. 

“She came out and began to go to our right, her left, and Till (whistled), and man, we could have all fainted,” Parker Jr. said. “In Mississippi, in 1955, people would kill for little to nothing.” 

He said after Till whistled, the group quickly got in their car and drove away. Parker Jr. said Till was scared of what would happen and a girl they knew warned them that something bad would come out of this incident.

The family visited the town again a few days later, as it was customary for Southerners to go out and do shopping on Saturdays. Later that night, Parker Jr. woke up at approximately 2:30 a.m. to voices asking where the boys from Chicago were. 

“I said, ‘God, we’re getting ready to die. These people want to kill us,’” Parker Jr. said. “I heard the stories about what was done to people, how they were treated, people getting hung and I’m shaking like a leaf on a tree.” 

Parker Jr. said when the men found Till and woke him up, he was in a state of confusion. After the men took Till away, Parker Jr. said he hid in the woods for the rest of the night for the sake of surviving. The next day, Parker Jr. said his family made it a point to get him out of town and on a train back to Chicago. 

When Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, the authorities arrested the men who took him, which Parker Jr. said was extremely rare.

“I think this is the first time in the history of Mississippi that a white man’s being charged — this is history being made — for doing something to a Black person,” Parker Jr. said. 

Due to the rarity of the situation, there was extreme backlash, Parker Jr. said. Till’s mother was afraid she would be killed for attending court, and a Black witness had a nervous breakdown due to the pressure. No attorneys in the area wanted to serve as prosecutors and the court had to look for a lawyer outside of the area, who eventually had to seek out protection from state police. 

Parker Jr. said the defendants were found not guilty because their lawyer argued that the case was a plot to “embarrass Mississippi” and said Till was actually alive and in Detroit. A few months after their acquittal, the defendants sold their story to Look Magazine, admitted they killed him and used the article to “demonize” Till, according to Parker Jr. 

One of the main reasons Parker Jr. began sharing his story is due to the false media narratives surrounding Till’s death, he said. Aside from the Look Magazine article, Parker Jr. said multiple documentaries have been made, including “Eyes On the Prize,” that feature inaccurate information about Till’s character as well as testimonies from people who were not actually with Till during the events leading up to his death.

“When I told my story, you know what they said? I’m still hurt by it: Wheeler Parker ‘alleged,’” Parker Jr. said. “Stories that were told by people who were not there get more credibility than an eyewitness.” 

Parker Jr. said despite the circumstances surrounding the death of his cousin, he has made it a point to not become spiteful. 

“God has a way of letting you know that you reap what you sow,” Parker Jr. said. “I don’t have any animosity … I can’t afford the luxury of hate.”

The event was open to Rutgers students, faculty and other community members. Jada Green, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, and Summer Pierce, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, are both members of the Black Lives Matter movement at Rutgers and attended the event.

Green said understanding Parker Jr.’s experiences with racism in the past, as well as how Till’s death helped spark the civil rights movement, is important for activists. 

“Coming here, you really get to see and hear the story — the real story — about something that kind of kicked off all of this,” Green said. “No Black person is desensitized to what happened to Till. We could sit here all day and talk about it, everybody still feels that kind of pain from that story.”

Pierce said she wanted to learn about how Parker Jr. coped with Till’s death.

“(I am here) just to hear his real side of the story and how that affected him and how he dealt with his Black trauma, because that’s something that a lot of people our age, and even older, still are dealing with now,” Pierce said. “Just to hear how he combatted that is amazing and inspiring.” 

Anhiella Rosa Cordero, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, and Caroline Blanchard, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, are currently taking the "Remembering Emmett Till" course. 

“It was hard for me not to be very emotional and worked up watching the documentary, so I can’t imagine him having seen it, lived it,” Cordero said. 

Blanchard said being able to hear about the event from someone with firsthand knowledge was impactful.

“It brings it more to life hearing someone who actually lived through it and was in the moment to tell us and explain to us what actually happened,” Blanchard said. “And the way Reverend Parker (Jr.) spoke, it was very inspiring because he holds no hate to anyone.”