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An American hero

[ 119 ] July 28, 2013 |

emmett till

Emmett Till in life and death

Willie Reed

Willie Reed

On an August morning in 1955, Willie Reed was an 18-year-old sharecropper living in the Mississippi delta. While walking to a store, he saw brand-new pickup truck drive past him and pull in front of a plantation barn. In the back, 14-year-old Emmett Till was about to be tortured and murdered, for the crime of allegedly whistling at the wife of one of the men.

Reed heard horrible screams coming from the barn. One of the killers then emerged from a barn with a pistol, and asked Reed if he had heard anything. “No sir, I didn’t,” he replied, knowing that any other answer would likely cause him to be murdered on the spot.

A few weeks later, in an act of indescribable courage, Reed testified against two of Till’s killers in a Mississippi courtroom, after walking through a gauntlet of Ku Klux Klan members. Till’s killers were acquitted in 67 minutes. One of the jurors remarked afterwards that the deliberations would have been shorter if the jurors had not paused for a soda pop break. For his own safety Reed was hidden away by a local African American doctor, until he testified again in November, before a grand jury hearing charges of kidnapping against the men who had been acquitted of murder. The grand jury refused to indict, despite the men’s own testimony that they had taken Till against his will and held him to “scare” him.

He was really the best eyewitness that they found,” David T. Beito, a historian at the University of Alabama who has written about the Till case, said Wednesday. “I don’t want to diminish the role played by the other witnesses, but his act in some sense was the bravest act of them all. He had nothing to gain: he had no family ties to Emmett Till; he didn’t know him. He was this 18-year-old kid who goes into this very hostile atmosphere.”

(With no criticism intended toward Prof. Beito, I suggest that under the circumstances “very hostile atmosphere” is a severe understatement regarding the situation the teenaged witness faced).

Reed, who by this point was running a significant risk of being lynched, was spirited away by civil rights leaders to Chicago, where he was kept under police protection for several months. He suffered a nervous breakdown, changed his name to Willie Louis, and got a job as a hospital orderly in 1959, which he kept until he retired in 2006. In 1976 he married, but his wife knew nothing about his role in the Till matter until a relative of his told her eight years later.

After viewing the severely disfigured corpse of her son, Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral. Photographs of the body galvanized outrage across the nation. Till’s murder and its aftermath played a key role in the gathering civil rights movement.

Willie Reed (Louis) died last week at the age of 76.


Comments (119)

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  1. DocAmazing says:

    Thank you. These are the stories that we all need to hear, and to tell.

  2. MAJeff says:

    When I read about the death the other day, the first person that came to mind was Till’s uncle and the “Dar he” identification in court. I was unaware of this young man until this week.

  3. Mr Nelson says:

    White women were off limit for so-called Negroes.

    Interestingly, many Negroes did own plantations and slaves :

  4. Ranger Jay says:

    Well, I’m glad that racism is now dead in the USA.

    Oh wait…

  5. Shakezula says:

    Compare and contrast.

    A bunch of grown men who tortured a boy to death and one boy who spoke out against them.

    Racists are cowards.

    • efgoldman says:

      Well, sure they are.
      Fear of some “other” drives racism, sexism, misogyny, and all that other good stuff.
      Pants-wetting in politics is like dark matter in the universe: you can’t see it, but you know its there, and it holds the whole mass of the conservative movement together.

    • Philip Arlington says:

      All kinds of people can be guilty of cowardice. It is self-deluding to pretend that cowardice, or pretty much any other moral flaw, is associated with holding views of which your disapprove.

      • sharculese says:

        And yet it remains true that racists are cowards, no matter how much dumbgross fake-centrist handwaiving you want to do about it.

      • Shakezula says:

        No. It is self-deluding to pretend bigots aren’t cowards.

        But if you want to say bigotry is in and of itself a moral flaw that includes cowardice, that’s all right as well.

        If you want to say bigotry is something about which reasonable people can disagree, we already have a variety of trolls, but we’ll keep your application on file.

  6. cpinva says:

    mr. reed’s act of testifying was, I think, more courageous than that of a witness against the mob. with the mob, it’s only them and their friends out to get you, in mr. reed’s case, it was the whole damn town.

  7. sharculese says:

    Hahah you’re dumb and scared of kids.

  8. Philip Arlington says:

    It is a very moving story, but now the United States has reached a pass where one of the arguments against closing law schools is that doing so would “discriminate” against blacks because they make up a higher proportion of the bottom rank of law school scam victims. And this is not a trivial argument, as you well know, but a powerful one, one of the most effective in the arsenal of law school scammers. In the United States false guilt has reached the tipping point and fallen off the other side. It is now a major cause of societal harm, including to blacks.

    It is time for privileged whites of the older generations to stop boosting their self-esteem by reminding us that they were or would have been on the right side in the struggles of the last century, and develop a laser-sharp focus on the struggles of the 21st century.

    These sort of articles undermine the core purpose of the blog by deflecting attention from who the guilt parties in the law school scam really are. You should face up to the reality that the law school scam is being committed predominantly by the same category of people as still spend their time emoting about old Civil Rights struggles. Can you not see that this suggests that people of this type are not morally superior, just because of the views they hold? It is what people do which determines their moral standing, not what they believe.

    Philip Arlington
    London, England
    (Born long after this murder occurred, and not willing to accept any share of guilt for it.)

  9. Mike Schilling says:

    That was in the olden days, when fleeing 1000 miles away worked. Nowadays there would be citizen journalists to post his new home address on the web.

  10. Ronan says:

    From an outsiders view of American history, looking at this deep seated systematic abuse, this exclusion from institutions and programs that helped everyone else prosper, shoving people into overcrowded no job areas, the surprise is that there wasnt a widespread violent mass uprising against the system
    Is there really any group in the US that has suffered as much historically, systemically, (apart from native Americans) as African Americans?

    • Warren Terra says:

      You’re almost certainly correct, but only because your parenthetical is doing a lot of work.

      • Ronan says:

        In what sense

      • Ronan says:

        I do see what you mean, but I’m trying to work that out..was there the same level of discrimination leveled at chinese immigrants, at hispanics, at the italians, jews etc before they ‘became white’ immigrants from africa, the middle east etc later seems not? seems this was personal
        And then where do native americans figure. Its just difficult to grasp, fully, how deep it goes

        • Malaclypse says:

          Well, we put the Japanese in concentration camps.

          • Ronan says:

            Not looking to excuse it (obviously), but during a war. And its still different surely than this endless disenfranchisement. This just seems worse than the usual
            (And this isn’t meant to be ‘beating up on Americans’..)

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Discrimination against the Chinese was widespread, violent, and nasty. No, there wasn’t the history of slavery behind it. And the Chinese were largely confined to the West Coast. But the Chinese were reviled and subject to massive humiliation and violence on a daily basis.

          • Ronan says:

            Did they face the same exclusion from social programs as African Americans? I read somewhere that ‘immigrants’ (Im sure that can be extended generationally in practice) found it easier to be accepted into the system (or was that just eusropeans?)

            • Erik Loomis says:

              You mean post-World War II social programs? I don’t think so in any systemic way but then they were banned from entering the U.S. from 1882 to 1943. I would be very careful when generalizing about immigrants to include the Chinese. They are a completely different group and were treated such than Irish, Italians, Jews, etc.

              • Ronan says:

                “They are a completely different group and were treated such than Irish, Italians, Jews, etc”

                Yeah that initial comment didnt read as I intended..italians, jews etc should have been a seperate question, it wasnt so much I thought the discrimination could have been comparable between european immigrants and chinese immigrants, but was just trying to place what sort of exclusion other non european immigrants faced in comparison to African Americans
                I mean the post war social programs, and the new deal social programs (?)and the self segregation that occurred in northern cities..was it easier to become accepted, politically/socially etc

                • efgoldman says:

                  As badly as other immigrant populations were treated, none were:
                  (a) Kidnapped in their home countries, and brought to this continent as actual slaves and
                  (b) Took more than 100 years after they were freed from slavery to become equal under the law (no matter what the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments say) and
                  (c) Continue to be discriminated against, 60+ years after those laws were passed, by the very institutions of government (one of the two major political parties) that is supposed to protect them and
                  (d) are having the very laws and rights and protections passed 70 years ago eviscerated by one of the three co-equal branches (the Supreme Court) that is supposed to protect those laws and rights and protections.

                • Ronan says:

                  I dont want to say much more, mainly because I dont know the history or the way it played itself out
                  But Im also thinking of stories like M Gladwells


                  Where ethnicity plays a part in how he’s accepted. Or recent immigrants like the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


                  Where she cant associate with the African American experience, but comes to realise that her ability to live in the US is still built on that struggle
                  So it’s trying to see how this all played out historically, but I still need to read more

                • wjts says:

                  From what I remember of it, Sucheng Chan’s Asian Americans: An Interpretive History gives a pretty good overview of the generalized Asian immigrant experience in America, though at this point it might be a little dated.

                • Ronan says:

                  Thanks wjts, Ive taken note. It looks ideal

              • The Dark Avenger says:

                Even then, until the 1960s’ it was difficult for people born in China to become American citizens, even if they were British subjects, as was the case with my grandmother and her sister. They both needed to have private bills passed through Congress to become American citizens in the late 1940s.

          • Pohranicni Straze says:

            One counterexample that I have always found fascinating was the case of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese twins”. They settled in antebellum North Carolina, married white Southern women, and bought a plantation and slaves. During the war, their (Eurasian) sons fought for the Confederacy. It is amazing to me that they were so well-integrated into the society of North Carolina, while so many contemporary Asians in California were treated so badly.

            • Shakezula says:

              I didn’t know until quite recently that San Fran’s Chinatown wasn’t a neighborhood where Chinese immigrants just happened to settle. It was a genuine ghetto and they were subject to curfew.

              But to get back to the initial comment, there were slave uprisings in the past. To ask why aren’t there mass uprisings by African-Americans today is odd. Why Africa

            • The Dark Avenger says:

              They weren’t seen as a threat to white laborers, as were their countrymen in California who had to specialize in occupations like laundry and restaurants which didn’t compete directly with said white laborers.

              • Pohranicni Straze says:

                Yes, I suspect that part of the reason was that they were pretty well off and willing to blend into the local culture (their homeland, Siam, did not fully abolish slavery until 1905, so I suspect they saw nothing wrong with owning their work force.) Just as in Louisiana, where people were willing to politely overlook the fact that some of the “French” slaveowners were part black, I guess the locals were willing to overlook the fact that Thai-Chinese-Malay =/= “White”.

                I was looking at a census record earlier, for one of the sons of Chang Bunker. It said quite clearly: birthplace of mother – North Carolina, birthplace of father – Siam, race – white. Very surprising, considering that at the same time many people who were 1/8 or less black were simply listed as black in official records.

                • The Dark Avenger says:

                  I can give you an example from my own Texan side of the family: When my father married my mother after a 6-week courtship, his family was more concerned that she was Catholic than the fact that she was part Chinese. This was in 1956.

                • Another Halocene Human says:

                  From what I understand, when the “Americans” started settling in Louisiana, they didn’t politely overlook it at all. They completely segregated themselves and made their utter disdain for Creoles clear. They accused them of being immoral and everything else. They also set about wresting political power from the Creole elite. It was pretty ugly.

                  People like Anne Rice, who live in the original “American” settlement in NOLA continue the tradition of hatred and contempt for Creoles to this day. (A goodly number of NOLAs poor living behind that barely-leashed lake are Creoles as well.)

                  Another interesting fact I picked up in NOLA was that a lot of Italian and Irish immigrants who got off the boat at Port of New Orleans never continued north to the Midwest. They settled in the French Quarter because, hey, fellow Catholics. Presumably Creoles treated Irishmen a bit better than the WASPs in the North. Employment discrimination was rampant in the face of the waves of refugees from the Potato Famine. Catholics or “Papists” were the Muslim bugaboos of the 19th century.

                • Another Halocene Human says:

                  Good example: England was happy to accept Christian African immigrants during the medieval period up to Henry VIII’s time, when one of his favorite trumpeters was the Black John Black. (It also turns out that certain surnames in England trace back to recent African ancestry in spite of European-seeming phenotype expression, showing the power of UV-exposure in natural selection in humans.) But by Elizabeth’s time there was a lot of stink about Black immigrants–apparently there were too many of them. It’s the old thing, one or two newcomers is totally cool, but once you get a crowd the pitchforks come out.

  11. Anti- Racist says:

    Was MLK a Republican or a Democrat?

    • The Dark Avenger says:

      He criticized both parties, troll, but you probably knew that already:


      As the leader of the SCLC, King maintained a policy of not publicly endorsing a U.S. political party or candidate: “I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either.”[31] In a 1958 interview, he expressed his view that neither party was perfect, saying, “I don’t think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses … And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.”[32]

      King critiqued both parties’ performance on promoting racial equality:

      Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic party. The Democrats have betrayed him by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed him by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of reactionary right wing northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and right wing reactionary northern Republicans defeats every bill and every move towards liberal legislation in the area of civil rights.[33]

      Although King never publicly supported a political party or candidate for president, in a letter to a civil rights supporter in October 1956 he said that he was undecided as to whether he would vote for Adlai Stevenson or Dwight Eisenhower, but that “In the past I always voted the Democratic ticket.”[34] In his autobiography, King says that in 1960 he privately voted for Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy: “I felt that Kennedy would make the best president. I never came out with an endorsement. My father did, but I never made one.” King adds that he likely would have made an exception to his non-endorsement policy for a second Kennedy term, saying “Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964.”[35],_Jr.#Politics

      • Anti- Racist says:

        So Sr was a Republican, but Jr was a crypto-Dem.

      • Anti- Racist says:

        Negroes were mostly aligned to the GOP… from the end of CW until the 1960s.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Yeah, what happened to you people?

          You did it to yourselves, you know. You thought becoming a white nationalist party was such a great idea in the 70s and 80s, and now look at you: you’re going to be doing Weekend at Bernie’s with John McCain voters for the next forty years.

        • sharculese says:

          Jenny it’s super cute how you think saying ‘negro’ over and over is going to get you the negative attention you crave.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Eh, not so much. Roosevelt’s policies–y’know, keeping people from starving to death and all–made him very popular with African-Americans. Lots of AfAm Democrats in the late ’30s and all the way up to Johnson’s time, when the Dixiecrats decided to start jumping ship for good and becoming Republicans.

    • Either way, he was shot by some white asshole who thought his ideas would destroy America because some folks seem to have something against African-Americans and think they shouldn’t be afforded the same rights as the rest of the citizens of the U.S. Those people still exist and they’re working like hell to piss on the man’s grave. If you think anything other than that actually matters too much, you’re a bigger pimple on the taint of humanity than one immediately assumes.


    • Anti- Racist says:

      ” At this time, King, Sr. had been a lifelong registered Republican, and had endorsed Republican Richard Nixon.”,_Sr.

      He was of course a Republican, since the GOP was and will always be the anti-slavery party!

    • anthrofred says:

      Shorter logic: All parties and political categories are and always will be the same, because history does not exist.

    • Hogan says:

      Hey Manju? Your friends are here.

  12. […] “Willie Reed (Louis) died last week at the age of 76.” I did not recognize his name and I did not know his story, although I knew about the larger […]

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