Willie Reed, a key witness in the landmark Emmett Till murder case died July 18 at a hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. He would have turned 72 on July 25. Reed, an African-American sharecropper in Mississippi in the 1950s, was called upon to testify against two white defendants in a case that, reports say, spurred the civil rights movement.
In this period of the Jim Crow South, people familiar with the case say it must have taken pure courage to testify against the two white defendants.
“What stood out, and what stands out to me about Willie the most, is his courage,” said Emmett Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, 74, who had gone on that fateful trip to Mississippi with Emmett Till. “He was nothing but a godsend.”
According to reports, Reed had never met Till, the black teenager who was kidnapped and brutally murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman. Till’s bruised body, tied with barbed wire to a fan, was recovered from the Tallahatchie River three days after he was kidnapped. Part of his head had been crushed and one of his eyes had been gouged out. His assailants had also cut off one of his ears.
Although Reed had never met Till, he testified he did see the black youth in the back of a pickup truck along with some men. The date was August 28, 1955.
Reed testified he later saw the same truck parked outside a home that belonged to the relative of one of the accused men.
“I come on by the barn,” Reed said in court. “I heard somebody hollering and I heard some licks like somebody was whipping somebody.”
When asked about the details of the “licks” and if there were several of them, Reed replied, “There was a whole lot of them.”
Reed also identified the defendant J.W. Milam in the court as the same person who later emerged from the barn where Reed had heard the whipping.
According to news reports at the time, Reed spoke so softly that it was hard to hear him from the witness stand.
An all-white jury found the two white defendants, Milam and Roy Bryant not guilty. The verdict, experts say, provided the spark for the civil rights movement.
It was a trial that mesmerized the nation but left a stain on American justice, experts say. Images of Till’s mutilated body had horrified citizens of all races. Reports say thousands of people paid tribute at Till’s open coffin in Chicago.
Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, told an interviewer, “There was no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
After the trial, Reed was taken away to Chicago for his own safety. He changed his name to Willie Louis for anonymity. He remained under police protection for several months and according to his wife, Juliet Louis, was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown at one time.
In an interview about his testimony that took place almost a decade ago, Reed said,
“I couldn’t have walked away from that like that because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life and had come to visit his grandfather, and they killed him. That’s not right.”
According to reports, Reed, known as Louis in Chicago, worked as a surgical orderly at a local hospital for nearly 50 years. He met his wife at the hospital and married her in 1976.
His wife said the Emmett Till landmark case really troubled him.
“He never really got over that. That was something that really bothered him, and he was keeping it in him.”
By Perviz Walji
Source: The Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times.com, NPR News