COLUMBIA — One of Simeon Wright's first statements to a packed house at the Reynolds Alumni Center echoed through the hushed second-floor ballroom.
"I have a story to tell," Wright said. "I am an eyewitness."
The men and women in the crowd on Wednesday night were all witnesses to the true and powerful story of the life and death of 14-year-old Emmett Till, the young black boy from Chicago who came to the South and sparked a change in the civil rights movement.
In an event sponsored by the Legion of Black Collegians and the Missouri Student Association, Wright and Till's cousin, Wheeler Parker Jr., came to tell a story more than 50 years old.
Till visited the Wright family in Mississippi in 1955. Wright, Till's second cousin, spoke with excitement about what he would show Till when he came to Mississippi that summer.
"If you lived in the South, you were so excited when someone from the North came," Wright said. "We wanted to show Emmett that Mississippi had highlights."
Till would see very little. In fact, after a few days in Mississippi, he would never see anything again.
Coming from the North, Till did not know the social customs of the South. One day, Till, Wright and Parker Jr. visited Bryant's Grocery and Meat Market in Money, Mississippi. When he came out of the store after shopping, Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman and co-owner of the store with her husband, Roy Bryant.
"When Emmett whistled, it was like an alarm. We couldn't believe that he did it," Parker Jr. said. "Still, it's not something you should get killed for."
Soon after the incident, Wright, Parker Jr. and Till were disturbed in their beds late one night by two white men — one of them Roy Bryant — asking for the young Chicagoan. Till followed them, not expecting what would happen next.
"He went with them willingly, because they said they were going to bring him back," Parker Jr. said.
However, Till never came back. Days later, a young fisherman found his body in a river, beaten and shot to death.
Wright said Till "loved to make you laugh. He wanted to laugh, and he wanted you to laugh."
The trial of the two men accused of killing Till began with optimism. Wright believed there would be a conviction, but that did not happen. The two men were found not guilty.
Parker Jr. made the reason clear Wednesday night why they tell the story of their young relative and his tragic death.
"We don't tell these stories to start up any animosity or bad will," he said. "We tell these stories to tell history and the truth."
"He didn't die in vain because we are here because of him," he said.
Wright began the night saying that he hoped the story would make the students in the crowd interested in practicing law.
To Wright, the story of Till's death not only changed his life but the life of the civil rights movement.
"It didn't start the civil rights movement. It transformed it," Wright said. "It brought white men, white women, Jews and Gentiles together."