Emmett Till in life and death
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.