Willie Reed, who died this month at the age of 76, performed one of the most powerful acts of courage of the Jim Crow era. As an 18-year-old in Drew, Miss., he saw a pickup truck roar past him, hauling away Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American visitor from Chicago who had supposedly whistled at a white woman in a store. The truck went to a nearby barn, where Reed heard the sounds of Till being beaten to death by white men. Afterwards, one of the armed lynchers, J.W. Milam, emerged to ask Reed if he had seen or heard anything. Terrified, Reed said no. But later, civil rights activists persuaded him to testify against Milam and Roy Bryant, the husband of the supposedly offended woman.
As a black man implicating white defendants in 1955, Reed risked his life. Nonetheless, an all-white jury acquitted Milam and Bryant in 67 minutes. (The two later confessed in a magazine article for which they were paid.) Till’s death became a national cause; his mother demanded an open-casket funeral to show what the segregated South had done to her boy. Reed, meanwhile, had to flee Mississippi for Chicago, where he changed his last name to Louis, became a hospital orderly, and faded into obscurity. Yet his bravery, which helped chisel away at segregation, will always be remembered.