Jan 222014
 

Wheeler Parker Jr.

Wheeler Parker Jr.

In a gripping Martin Luther King, Jr. Day assembly, Wheeler Parker, Jr. spoke to the Groton School community, describing the night in 1955 when two white men kidnapped his cousin, Emmett Till, from the Mississippi home where both boys were visiting relatives. Till was 14. His vicious murder is widely recognized as an important catalyst in the civil rights movement.

The men seized Till while Parker, then 16 years old, froze in terror nearby. “I just closed my eyes waiting to be shot,” he told the crowd in the Campbell Performing Arts Center. The murderers, who later confessed to the killing in a magazine article, were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. They had tortured and killed Till because he reportedly had whistled at one of their wives.

Although his cousin’s murderers went free, Parker believes the trial itself signified progress because it was the first time charges had been brought against a white person for a crime committed against a black person in Mississippi.  “However, he said, “We weren’t surprised by the acquittal.”

During the assembly, Parker reminisced about his cousin, describing an affable kid, “a clown, a prankster,” who commanded attention despite a noticeable stutter. More than once Parker mused that his cousin should not have traveled from Chicago to Mississippi. “He knew nothing about the Southern mores,” Parker said. “He wanted to go because I was going.”

Groton School’s MLK Day assembly began with a 60 Minutes segment about the Emmett Till case, which included on-camera interviews with Parker. The case was reopened by the Department of Justice in 2004 amid evidence that the two acquitted men were not the only ones involved in the crime.

After watching the 60 Minutes story, students and teachers asked Parker a flurry of questions, covering topics from Till’s mother’s determination to draw attention to her only child’s death and why Mississippi has not prosecuted anyone else in the case to a rapper’s controversial mention of Emmett Till and the conditions in the South today. Later in the day, students and faculty split into small groups to discuss the event and other issues surrounding inclusion.

During the assembly, a student asked about the night of the kidnapping, and Parker described his terror: “It seemed like daylight would never come. I thought they were coming back.” He recalled putting on his shoes so he could run into the nearby woods if the murderers returned. His uncle later took him to another uncle’s house many miles away, and he then took the train to Memphis. Fear struck again in Memphis when people shouted warnings to the skittish young traveler because, accustomed to a life in Chicago without Jim Crow laws, he almost entered a whites-only restroom.

Today, Parker regularly visits Mississippi, which he believes has made significant progress, including having more black elected officials than any other state. “I feel more comfortable than I did in 1955,” he said, adding, “I still pick my places to go.” Despite his experience in 1955, the speaker said he does not hate. “Hate destroys the hater,” he said. “If you hate, it destroys you, not the person you’re hating.”


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