This year’s History Speaks lecture series at Oklahoma Christian University took place last night, featuring civil rights and peace activist Wheeler Parker Jr. Parker shared the story of his cousin Emmett Till’s life and “wrongful” murder.
Parker grew up in Slaughter, MS and relocated to Chicago at the age of eight with his family for the chance of better education, living conditions and opportunities. Traveling with the family was his cousin, Emmett Till, who was 14 at the time.
While visiting Mississippi one summer, Till and Parker were in a store when Till “wolf-whistled” at a young lady. Although he did not touch or speak to her, the whistle alone put Till and the rest of his family in danger. Parker said they left the store immediately, knowing this was a “horrible” situation in which to be and they needed to leave town as soon as possible.
“I assumed they would kill him,” Parker said. “I thought I would die as well.”
According to Parker, two white men later entered their home in the middle of the night—one with a gun—and ordered Till to come with them. In a video played at the event, Moses Wright, another cousin of Till, said his mother pleaded with the men to leave Till with them that night and offered them money, but they would not take it. According to Wright, they wanted vengeance. After the men left with Till, Wright said the house was filled with silence.
The men, later identified as Bryant and Mill, were tried for Till’s murder and were found not guilty. After years of being protected by double jeopardy, the men later confessed to abducting and murdering Till.
“I’m a free man,” Parker said. “I don’t have any hate or animosity for those involved in the death of Emmett Till. I hate what they did, but I feel pity towards them.”
According to Parker, Till’s mother requested an open casket for his funeral so the whole world could see how the two men had brutally beat and murdered her son.
“Laws make you behave better, but it doesn’t legislate the heart,” Parker said.
Oklahoma Christian Multicultural Coordinator Gary Jones said Emmett Till’s story has had an effect on his life, as growing up as an African American man, Jones had to behave in a certain way in order to stay out of trouble. Jones said he believes the Till event is what really changed the civil rights movement and began a life-long battle for justice.
“If we’re killing children, then nobody is off limits, and that says a lot about the where the movement went and where it had to go,” Jones said.
The story of Emmett Till is one of the most well know civil rights activist stories “that changed the world,” according to Time magazine.
In past years, Oklahoma Christian has welcomed civil rights and peace activist Diane Nash, Olympic Medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and civil rights icons Claudette Colvin and Fred Gray as part of their History Speaks lecture series. Each speaker shared their stories of hardships and victories during the civil rights movement with the Oklahoma Christian community.
“This event is different and more serious than our previous ones,” Oklahoma Christian Marketing Project Manager Kelly Cox said. “All of our other ones have been a positive movement in civil rights. This one was a very negative event that underscored why that movement was so important.”