8 things to know about Wheeler Parker Jr., Emmett Till’s cousin, eyewitness to his lynching

Chicago
By Chicago 7 Min Read

The Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr., is the last living eyewitness to the lynching of Emmett Till and the incident at a grocery store that triggered two white supremacists in Mississippi to brutally murder the 14-year-old Black Chicago youth.

Monday marks the 68th anniversary of Till’s Aug. 28, 1955, lynching. Till’s mutilated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River on Aug. 31, 1955, with barbed wire around his neck attached to a cotton gin fan weighing 70 pounds.

That summer of 1955, Parker, 16 and Till, 14 — cousins and close friends — took the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans train south from Chicago to visit and stay with relatives in rural Mississippi.

Today, Parker, 84, is the minister of the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ in south suburban Summit, a congregation founded by Till’s grandmother in 1926.

He is dedicated to telling the story of Till’s death and describing events to which he is the last living eyewitness.

Parker, in an interview Thursday with the Sun-Times for the “At the Table” show, recounted what happened that day in the grocery store — and the horrific events a few nights later when Till was abducted.

The “At the Table” conversation, at Parker’s church, included Christopher Benson, the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor who with Parker co-wrote the book “A Few Days Full of Trouble: Revelations on the Journey to Justice for My Cousin and Best Friend, Emmett Till.”

Here are eight things to know about Parker:

  • Parker was born in Mississippi and as a youth picked cotton.
  • He moved to the south suburban Argo community in January 1947 with his family, escaping the Jim Crow South.
  • The Parkers moved into a house next door to where Till lived. Later, Till would move to Chicago’s South Side.
  • In August 1955, Parker was nervous about returning to Mississippi with his cousin, who had never experienced Southern racism and didn’t know the dangers he could face.
  • Parker was with Till when he wolf whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Dunham, at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi.

When they entered the grocery store, Parker recalled for the Sun-Times, he was worried. “My heart just kind of skipped a beat. I said, ‘I hope he got it together.’ I know in the South, we call it going behind the Iron Curtain. You can be killed for little or nothing about nothing.”

When Dunham stepped outside the store, “Emmett being the jokester, the prankster, loves to make people laugh, never had a dull day in his life, all of a sudden he gives this wolf whistle. … And when he whistled, we all could have died right there. We all made a beeline for the car.”

  • Parker knew the reality of Jim Crow. Till did not. When Till whistled, “We knew that he had violated a very serious Southern more.”

“If you didn’t live during that time and experience that type of life, you have no idea what I am talking about. You can only have an imagination. But we knew he could be killed for a reckless eyeball. He whistled at the lady, and that was a grave, grave violation, a grave violation.”

  • Parker, Till and other relatives were all asleep when a few days later, at 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1955, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant — Carolyn’s husband — barged into their home looking for Till.

Hearing their voices talking about what happened at the store, Parker thought, “These people are getting ready to kill us, we are getting ready to die. I knew where I was, I knew what he had done. We survived a few days, but death is here.”

They didn’t want Parker. They found and took Till. “And that was the last time we saw him alive.”

  • Parker was at the White House when President Joe Biden signed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act on March 29, 2022. It makes lynching a federal hate crime and gives federal prosecutors the ability to investigate an incident when a state does not, with its overdue passage coming in the George Floyd era. Overall, hate crimes of all types are on the rise in the U.S., according to the FBI, which found in March 2023 that reported hate crime incidents increased from 8,210 in 2020 to 9,065 in 2021.

Parker was also at the White House with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on July 25 of this year when Biden signed the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument Proclamation. The proclamation covered three related Till historic sites: Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, 4021 S. State St., the site of Till’s funeral; the river landing in Mississippi where Till’s body was found; and the Tallahatchie County Second District Courthouse, where an all-white jury acquitted Milam and Bryant on Sept. 23, 1955.

Till’s death helped spark the modern civil rights movement because of a series of crucial decisions by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley to seize the narrative, including allowing a photographer to take a close-up picture of Till’s disfigured body at the A.A. Rayner Funeral Home — published by Jet Magazine and the Chicago Defender — and to have an open casket funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, so that the thousands who came to pay their respects could bear witness for themselves.

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