Ethics Hero Emeritus: Willie Reed ( 1937-2013)

Willie Reed

I began the day, to my surprise, with tears in my eyes from reading an obituary on the front page of today’s Washington Post.

The story announced the death of Willie Reed, who as an African American teenager in 1955, risked his life by testifying in a Mississippi court against the white men who had tortured and murdered Emmet Till, another black teenager, for the Jim Crow “crime” of allegedly whistling at a white woman.

The intensity of my emotional reaction surprised me. I think it was the product of being reminded of the horrific tragedy that befell Till and other black citizens at the height of segregation, and being slapped in the face with the reality, known to me but kept deep in the place in my brain where the ugliest things are sealed away to keep me from incurable despair, of the deranged hate that festered so long—and destroyed so many— in the country I love. I was also overcome with admiration and wonder at the almost unimaginable courage of Reed, who knew that by testifying in open court he was simultaneously  guaranteeing that he would be marked for Till’s fate for the rest of his life. Maybe most of all, I wept out of anger at my ignorance and the warped priorities of our culture and educational system, which ensures that we know the names and life stories of insignificant narcissists like Kim Kardashian, embarrassing political leaders like Michele Bachman, greedy athletes like Lance Armstrong, and cynical demagogues like Al Sharpton, but know nothing of the lives and deeds of unglamorous American heroes like Willis Reed. I consider myself an educated man, but I had never heard of him, which means I am not educated enough. I wish I could apologize to Reed. I wish I could shake his hand. I wish I could say, “thank you.”

The Post told me that Reed died July 18 at a hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Since fleeing Mississippi for his safety nearly 60 years ago—he returned, incredibly, to testify a second time before a grand jury— Reed had lived in Chicago under a new name to avoid being hunted down by racist vigilantes. A sharecropper in Mississippi, he worked as a hospital orderly until he retired. Nobody knew that the quiet man who was emptying bedpans was one of the most remarkable heroes of the civil rights era. From the Post:

“…In the early hours of Aug. 28, 1955, a Sunday, Mr. Reed was walking to a store when he saw a Chevy pickup carrying several men, black and white, and a youth he would recognize in newspaper photographs as Till. Mr. Reed later saw the truck parked on a nearby property that belonged to a relative of Milam’s [one of the killers]. “I come on by the barn,” Mr. Reed testified. “I heard somebody hollering, and I heard some licks like somebody was whipping somebody.” “And what about the licks?” a prosecutor inquired. “Was it just one lick you heard, or was it two, or were there several licks?” “There was a whole lot of them,” Mr. Reed replied. Mr. Reed testified that he saw Milam emerge from the barn, a pistol on his belt, to take a drink from the well. At one point, the prosecutor asked Mr. Reed if he saw Milam in the courtroom. Mr. Reed replied that he was “sitting right over there” — and pointed at the bald-headed defendant. To give such testimony, the prosecutor told the jury, “Willie Reed has more nerve than I have.” Civil rights activists arranged for Mr. Reed to be spirited out of town and taken by train to the North to better secure his safety. He remained under police protection for several months, his wife said, and was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown….”

As was the norm in those terrible times in the South, the men Reed testified against were instantly acquitted by an all-white jury. Reed, young as he was, had to know that would be the likely result despite his testimony, and that he was sacrificing his future and even his life for a principle, and perhaps nothing more. Still, the 18-year-old performed his duty as a citizen and a human being that fate had imposed on him. Referring to his being urged by the civil rights delegation led by Medgar Evers to testify in the trial, Reed once told “60 Minutes,” “Emmett was 14 and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right. . . . I knew that I couldn’t say no.” Yet how many others—how many of us--would have done just that? “It won’t make any difference” is a powerful rationalization.

Read the whole Post story. Read it to refresh your memory about Emmet Till. Read it to understand, or to remind you if you have forgotten, how deeply this nation was engulfed in mindless racism just a half century ago, and to take pride in how far the U.S. has come in so short a time.

Read it to reflect on the insult inflicted on the memory of Till and the fair jury in the Zimmerman case by those who have dared to compare the two cases. Read it to reflect on the irony of Willie Reed  having to hide to protect himself from violent racists then, and the fact that George Zimmerman, his family, and the family he rescued this week from an overturned vehicle feel that they have to hide now, to protect themselves from inheritors of the civil rights movement’s legacy, inflamed by an African American Attorney General and President.

Read it to inspire yourself to do what is necessary to expose evil and wrongdoing, even when doing so means personal sacrifice.

And read it to honor Willie Reed, as courageous an American and as great an ethics hero as ever lived…and we never even knew his name.


Facts and Graphic: Washington Post

9 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Willie Reed ( 1937-2013)

  1. I see no need to be surprised at an emotion response to such a story.

    The passing of any person who represents the ideal that he represents is always a huge loss to society. It is sad that we may never personally know such men and are forced into contemplation that were we ever in such a position could we behave in such a heroic fashion.

    He and his story represent the unashamed belief in truth and goodness that, in people like him, seems so natural that considering other options never occurs to them. People who know that personal comfort and convenience are not the most important things in this world. People who have those righteous beliefs and are placed in such a scenario that they are called to live those beliefs despite what is a monstrous machine working to destroy them, represent the very values good people hold dear.

    No Jack, you shouldn’t be surprised at the emotional response. It’s an honest response because it calls us all to hope we can only be so strong and selfless. To others, to the narcissist/materialists I imagine it should cause them to hold their manhood a cheap (except that I doubt they hold them to any esteem to begin with).

    • It’s the same response to the passing of any great generation or loss of any individual who stood against the odds in the name of righteousness.

      The passing of George Washington or the simultaneous passing of Thomas Jefferson/John Adams. The foiling and immediate execution of the July 20 plotters led by Von Stauffenberg. Merely visiting the cemeteries at Normandy and contemplating that ordinary men were called to extraordinary circumstances to face down evil despite being called from safe lifestyles and not backing down.

      There’s no surprise at an emotional response to the loss of heroes.

      • “There’s no surprise at an emotional response to the loss of heroes.”
        Bingo. I read of Reed’s death just this morning, too, in a great article. I watched an hour of “The Last Days of WWII” last night, and had my moments then of teary eyes. For reasons only a psychologist might possibly be able to explain, my thoughts of heroism in those emotional moments always run quickly to memories of Jackie Robinson, who, besides being one excellent athlete and baseball player, certainly had to be one of the boldest, if not one of the bravest, men ever to live and work in North America at any time.

        We need so many more heroes who live by Jackie’s creed, “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”

  2. I ran across this excerpt from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950 (back when they used to reserve their prizes for actual accomplishment). I think it’s tremendous and applies to this web log’s writer and his undertaking:

    “The poet’s, the writer’s duty, is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure, by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to helping him endure and prevail.”

  3. Great article.. The linked Post Obit pointed out that Willie Reed lived the rest of his life in fear.. In spite of that he worked in a Chicago hospital until 2006, and is survived by a wife, stepson, seven grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren. Now THAT’s a life.

    It’s not that heroes have no fear, it’s that they focus and act in spite of it.

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