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