Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till's cousin, reflects on his life and legacy
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. is still trying to process something from his past from 67 years ago.
WHEELER PARKER JR: You feel so helpless. You're 16. You don't know about the media, and I've had to live with that story all my life. Even now, it's still painful the way they portrayed him.
RASCOE: What he's had to live with since 1955 is a double blow - the lynching of his 14-year-old cousin Emmett Till after an interaction with a white store clerk in Mississippi and then the way Till was characterized in the courtroom and by some in the press.
PARKER: They portrayed him as a person, like to do a lot of Black men in the South - rapists or too aggressive and, you know, out of line.
RASCOE: All these years later, Reverend Parker is doing the telling, telling Emmett Till's story in a new book. It's his story, too, and we're featuring it as part of our series profiling members of the civil rights generation. And before Emmett Till became a symbol for the civil rights movement, he was just a child, a child who was silly and brave and adored by his family.
You called him Bobo. That's what he was called by his family.
PARKER: We finally getting used to saying Emmett Till, but he was Bobo.
RASCOE: Reverend Parker's book is called "A Few Days Full Of Trouble," and it bears witness to Emmett Till's death but also his life.
PARKER: He was a fun-loving prankster, loved to tell jokes, stuttered all of the time. We do not really emphasize his stutter enough.
RASCOE: Reverend Parker said that stutter never slowed Emmett Till down. He was the center of attention. And the two grew up tight - not just cousins but best friends living next door to one another in Chicago.
PARKER: 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. So when he found out my grandfather was here and I'm going back South with him, he just couldn't believe it. He persisted, as he would, and they finally decided to let him go. And that's how we went - ended up going together.
RASCOE: What did you think when you were going down South for the summer? Like, was it something that you worried about? Or was it something you were looking forward to?
PARKER: I was not apprehensive at that point because we were with my grandfather. We were - we feel safe, you know? I knew what the South was like, and I was very much aware of the mores, the rules of the South. I spent my formative years there. So I knew the do's and don'ts without a doubt. They taught Black boys that to stay alive because they knew you could be killed. Black men had a rough time, but we didn't have a hard time because we stayed within our lane.
RASCOE: I mean, and what were some of the rules that you were told? Like, this is what you cannot do. This is what you must do.
PARKER: Well, the biggest thing, when you went into the store, you have to make sure, you know, yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. You got to say that. They're going to question you. I don't care how old you are. You couldn't give just an answer. Yes, sir. No, sir. No, ma'am. Yes, ma'am - and those kind of things - those were some of the things that you really, really had to be up on because they could tell right away you're not from there by your language.
RASCOE: Well, what happened at the store? I know you've told the story. But just so we know, what happened at the store?
PARKER: Those stores down South - they had a counter in front of you about 4 feet wide. And everything you want is on the wall behind the cashier. So you told them what you want, and they'd bring it to you. I remember very vividly, Emmett came - Bobo came into the store, and my heart just took a beat. I said, wow, I hope he got it together today because we're in the store, and the attendants are white. So my Uncle Simeon, who was 12, came in the store with him, and nothing happened while they were in the store. But what happened after that? They came out of the store, and Miss Bryant came out. And Emmett Till loved to make people laugh. He loved to have pranks, so he whistled. He gave her the wolf whistle.
RASCOE: And this is the white woman who...
PARKER: Yes. Yes.
RASCOE: ...Was there? Yeah.
PARKER: She was 21. She's the young white lady there. And he whistled at her. And man, when he did that, we could have died. I mean, nobody said, let's go. We just made a beeline for the car.
RASCOE: But did he have any idea, like, what doing that would mean? Or he's just joking around. Like, he's - I mean, he's a kid. He just had no idea, right?
PARKER: Just turned 14. He was joking. He wanted to make us laugh.
RASCOE: Just joking. Yeah.
PARKER: And 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. So when we regrouped at the edge of the road, Emmett begs us not to tell my grandfather. We didn't tell. Should have told. Hindsight - we should have told. But you never know what you could have done to save - got him out of there or what. But anyway, that's what we dealt with.
RASCOE: And so then it was that Sunday morning when they came into the house.
PARKER: Yes, 2:30 - I heard them talking at 2:30 in the morning. 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. And they're here. And they're talking, and they're asking questions.
RASCOE: And you were the other boy from Chicago. When they said two...
PARKER: Right. Right.
RASCOE: ...It means you were the...
PARKER: I was the other guy.
RASCOE: ...Other guy.
PARKER: And I said, I'm getting ready to die. And first thing - we were raised very - in a very strict religious atmosphere, and one thing I was very much aware of, that my relationship with God ain't right. That's what stuck me more. I said, God, if you just - if you just please let me live, I'm going to get my life right with you. And I'm shaking like a leaf on the tree in the dark of the thousand midnights. You can't - 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 flashlight in the other, I closed my eyes to be shot. Horrible feeling. Horrible, horrible feeling.
Of course, they went to the third room. They found Emmett in the bed with Uncle Simeon. 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.
RASCOE: So much has been written, you know, and there's a new film out about Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, and how she carried herself during that time and how she was this symbol of grief but also strength and just, you know, her determination that the world would see what happened to her son, to her baby.
PARKER: You know, I tell people, Emmett, Bobo, was not the first person that suffered at the hands of Southerners. So we were not stranger to these kind of atrocities. My dad had to sleep with his gun overnight. My uncle told me about people being hung right down the road from where he lived. And that's the kind of atmosphere we grew up in. That's the kind of atmosphere we lived in. And we got along because we stayed in our place.
But this story, as God would have it, went - it went ballistic. It went everywhere. And they - the whites were not used to stories getting out like this, out of hand. That's what it was, out of hand. Normally, it stayed within a certain area. A few people learned about it. But this story went everywhere - Paris, France, China. And now these guys are starting to look bad. Now they got to make it seem like Emmett got what he deserved. That's what they saw. Paint a bad picture of it, Bobo. He not only misbehaved. He's arrogant with it. I've been with white women before, and I've done this here. I'm not afraid of you. Oh, no. So they tried to justify what happened to Emmett. Normally they wouldn't have to say anything because it would not go anywhere. It would be swept under - 'cause Black people were not going to talk about it.
RASCOE: And people were so afraid to even say anything.
PARKER: They wouldn't talk about it. You couldn't get them to say nothing. Their mouth was hush hush. Even now, they're not going to say too much.
RASCOE: When it came to Mamie, do you remember, like, talking with her after this happened? Or do you remember, you know, watching her, you know, at the funeral or anything like that?
PARKER: We didn't talk. She never asked me what happened. 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.
RASCOE: I mean, what has it meant for you to have to carry this legacy? Because you were a kid when this happened. But now you are the elder that is carrying on this story. What has it meant for you to have to make that transition?
PARKER: I think time shapes you and prepare you that you'll be able to carry on. Before his mother died, she came out. 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 said - 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.
RASCOE: That's Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. His new book is "A Few Days Full Of Trouble: Revelations On The Journey To Justice For My Cousin And Best Friend, Emmett Till." Thank you so much for talking with us.
PARKER: Thank you all for having me. I hope I've said something to help and inspire those who have a calling in their life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RASCOE: Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. is just one member of the civil rights generation we've been profiling on WEEKEND EDITION. You can hear others like, on this Jubilee weekend in Selma, Ala., Miss JoAnne Bland, one of Bloody Sunday's youngest footsoldiers. Just go to npr.org and search civil rights generation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.