Last living witness to the abduction of Emmett Till tells KU crowd it is important that the story lives on

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. is pictured on April 24, 2024 at the KU Spencer Museum of Art.

Wheeler Parker Jr. was worried about the words that might come out of his cousin’s mouth.

His cousin, Emmett Till, you see, had not been to the South. He was a Black teenager from Chicago, and there had been much discussion in August 1955 among the Till and Wheeler families of whether cousin Emmett should even travel to Mississippi to see his family there.

“The question became should we let Emmett go south?” Parker remembered on Wednesday as he visited the University of Kansas campus.

But Emmett, even at the age of 14 and with a severe stutter that was a remnant of polio, was persuasive.

Parker wasn’t quite convinced, and a prevailing thought that kept racing through his mind as he, Emmett and other friends entered the grocery store in Money, Miss., proved it.

“I remember thinking coming into it, I said ‘I hope he’s got his language together,'” said Parker, who noted in conversation with media members prior to his evening speech that Emmett’s fun-loving personality included a lot of lively language. “It could be bad if his language is not together.”

A word did not cause the trouble. A whistle, though, led to death.

There’s no need to save this story’s tragic ending to the end. Even casual followers of civil rights history are likely to know of Emmett Till’s story. He whistled — a “wolf whistle” Parker said — at a married white woman just outside the store. Till ultimately was kidnapped and his beaten and lynched body was found three days later. The woman’s husband and his half-brother were arrested for the murder, but found innocent at trial. After no longer being able to face charges, they admitted to the murder.

The story is known, but that is no reason that it shouldn’t be told today, Parker said as he visited KU for many hours on Wednesday, culminating with a public event at the Spencer Museum of Art, which is hosting a traveling exhibit about Till and his mother.

Parker, now 85 and with a long career as a reverend and pastor, said he wanted people who hear his talk and see the exhibit primarily to leave with “the courage and boldness to stand for what is right, regardless.”

But it is not just casual viewers who have a responsibility, he said. People who have seen, witnessed and experienced events of racism and hatred have a mighty obligation too.

“Continue to tell the story,” he said.

Yes, it can be difficult — he calls Till’s story painful and ugly — and, yes, there are some who say telling those stories of yesteryear detracts from the progress society has made. Parker disagrees, not that progress has been made, but that the stories have diminished in value with time.

Parker tells the story frequently. He’s active in the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley Institute — led by his wife, Marvel Parker, who has been credited with shedding new light on the life of Emmett’s mother. Mamie Till-Mobley became a civil rights icon in her own right by holding an open-casket funeral for Emmett, which drew thousands and produced images that were published around the world. But not all the stories Parker tells are in public. Some come through the thoughts and memories that can arise at any time.

“I go right back there and start crying,” Parker said at a press event prior to his evening speech. “I put myself right back in that position. You tell the story and you start wondering how could that have happened? How could people be like that?”

For anyone who wants insight into how people were in the final days of Emmett Till’s life, Parker is the lone man left to tell that story. He is the last living witness to what happened at the grocery store and of Emmett’s abduction.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr. speaks to crowd of onlookers in front of a display telling the story of his murdered cousin, Emmett Till, on April 24, 2024.


The dust had literally settled, and everyone was still alive.

Parker remembers many a detail of those 1955 days. He starts by telling audiences that it was “cotton picking season” in the Mississippi delta, and that the delta is a place often more about producing products than providing human habitation. His family had left the South in the late 1940s, as part of the great migration where large numbers of Black families moved north.

“We were coming in so fast, we scared everybody,” Parker said of the migration, which took his family to Chicago.

Back in Mississippi to see family, Parker quickly remembers the geographic dividing lines that stretch across the South: blacktop roads, gravel roads, and dirt roads, which took you to the deepest parts of the woods. His family lived where the gravel roads turned to dirt.

After the whistle outside the grocery store, he, Emmett and the others were in their car heading back to the family home. Hardly any time had passed, as the notes of the whistle had barely faded from the air when the Black teens made a straight line to the vehicle.

There was nothing more than a whistle, and Parker and everybody besides Emmett knew that would be trouble enough.

“We knew the South,” Parker said. “We knew the mores of the South. When he whistled, we made a beeline for the car. Nobody had to say let’s go. Nobody had to say let’s get out of here. We just beelined to the car.”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A display from the “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” exhibit at the KU Spencer Museum of Art is pictured on April 24, 2024.

In the car, the cloud of dust behind it was immense. Parker remembers thinking that men from the grocery store were already chasing them. But when they made it to the family home and the dust dispersed, there were no pursuers.

But there was a warning waiting for them. Parker remembers there was an 18-year old woman there who knew the husband of the woman that Emmett whistled at.

“This is not over,” Parker remembers her telling the group.

Four days later, the end began. Emmett, Parker and others had been out in the area for evening entertainment and had returned home about midnight, Parker said. At about 2:30 a.m., Parker heard the voices of men, talking about the two boys from Chicago, and how they were going to talk to the one that did the whistling.

“I said ‘God, I’m getting ready to die. These men are going to kill us,'” Parker said.

But no such thing happened at the family home. Instead, the men — armed with a pistol and a flashlight — found Emmett in the room two doors down. It was excruciating, but not because of any violence that occurred in the room. It was the knowing of what would come. They told him to put his shoes on and get dressed.

“You don’t want to ever experience anything like that in your life,” Parker said. “You feel so helpless.”

What happened next is that Emmett left with the two men, and Parker said Emmett had no idea what those men were capable of.

“He went peacefully with them, and that is the last time we ever saw him alive,” Parker said.

Three days later, Emmett’s mutilated corpse was pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. The site where Emmett was pulled from the river became a memorial that a small group of residents of Tallahatchie County erected after more than four decades of the community doing very little to recognize the murder.

The sign, though, quickly became a target. The first three signs were vandalized with bullet holes. The first sign is in the Smithsonian Institution, and the third sign is in the traveling exhibit that is at Spencer through May 19.

“The fourth sign is, to my knowledge, the only bulletproof road sign marker in all of America,” Dave Tell, a KU communications professor who moderated Wednesday’s event and has researched the aftermath of Emmett’s murder, told the crowd. “I tell you that because the exhibit behind you is not just about what happened in 1955. It also is about how hard it is to tell the story in 1955.”

Parker used Wednesday’s event — which attracted a capacity crowd to Spencer’s Central Court — to thank the people who put up the signs along the river. They are important and meaningful, but Parker said he doesn’t spend much time by the river when he is in the area.

“I don’t expect anything to happen, but I know it can happen,” he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” exhibit at the KU Spencer Museum of Art includes a sign that marked the location of Till’s death. The signs is full bullet holes, as it was vandalized just days after it was erected in 2018.

The “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” exhibit at the KU Spencer Museum of Art includes a sign that marked the location of Till’s death. The signs is full bullet holes, as it was vandalized just days after it was erected in 2018.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Displays that are part of the “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” exhibit at the KU Spencer Museum of Art are pictured on April 24, 2024.


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