An Emmett Till key witness, Willie Reed, has reportedly died at age 76 in Chicago, Illinois. An ABC 7 News report said that his wife, Julie Louis, told them that a memorial service was planned for Wednesday.
There were no details about the cause of death.
Willie Reed was just 18 years old in 1955 when he became a key witness in the murder trial of two Mississippi men charged with lynching and killing Emmett Till. The 14-year-old boy had reportedly flirted with a 21-year-old white woman when he stopped to purchase candy at Bryant’s Grocery.
Reed saw the two men drive the boy in a truck to a barn. Reed also overheard the screams as Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, the woman’s husband and his half-brother, tortured and killed the Emmett Till.
“He said even though he was scared, he had to testify, he had to tell what he saw,” Julie Louis told ABC.
Despite death threats, Reed did testify at length, putting both killers on the scene.
But Bryant and Milam were acquitted anyway. Knowing that the double jeopardy laws meant they couldn’t be tried again for the brutal murder of Emmett Till, the two men then confessed to shooting Till in a Look magazine story for a fee of around $4,000.
Willie Reed paid a price for his courage and feared for his life in Mississippi. He suffered a nervous breakdown and moved to Chicago, where he changed his name to Willie Louis.
Many people can’t help but draw a parallel between the Emmett Till case and the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman never denied shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin but he was recently acquitted of the murder charges on the grounds of self-defense — even though the teen was armed with nothing except some Skittles.
In a Metafilter discussion forum of Willie Reed’s passing, one poster had this thought: “[A]nd how heartbreaking he was alive to see Trayvon’s case and Zimmerman’s acquittal, and to realize not a damn f******g thing has changed since he was 18.”
And here is a more hopeful comment: “Brave, brave guy. I kind of have this mental list of people who risked/gave their lives or made enormous personal sacrifices, for the love of their fellow humans, when turning and walking away would have actually been the easiest, relatively consequence-free thing to do. I remember them all the time, especially the ones who acted as children/teenagers, and will remember Willie too.”
With Willie Reed’s passing, ABC said that one of the last Emmett Till witnesses has died.
[Emmett Till & Bryant’s Grocery ruins photos via Wikimedia]