This week the New York Times reported the passing of Willie Reed. That name probably doesn’t ring any bells. Reed who would later change his name to Willie Louis played a pivotal role in one of our country’s most important — and arguably flawed — criminal trials: the murder of Emmett Till.
The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, Louis was the prosecution’s star witness. As reported by the Times, David T. Beito, a historian at the University of Alabama who has written about the Till case, noted, “He was really the best eyewitness that they found. I don’t want to diminish the role played by the other witnesses, but his act in some sense was the bravest act of them all. He had nothing to gain; he had no family ties to Emmett Till; he didn’t know him. He was this 18-year-old kid who goes into this very hostile atmosphere.”
Hostile indeed. In order to testify, Louis had to endure death threats and pass through a phalanx of Klansmen. Once he had given his testimony, he had to flee Mississippi for Chicago and change his name. His secret was so guarded that even the woman he married in 1976 didn’t learn about his testimony for eight years — even then the news came third-hand.
The facts of the case are agreed upon to a near consensus. On Aug. 21, 1955, Till arrived in Money, Miss., to stay at the home of his great-uncle, Moses Wright. On Aug. 24, Till went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a store in Money owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant.
Carolyn Bryant later testified that while in the store, Till grabbed her hand and made a sexual suggestion. Leaving the store, according to some accounts, he let out a wolf whistle.
Early in the morning on Aug. 28, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home. They beat Till, shot him in the head and weighed down his body with a cotton-gin fan laced round his neck with barbed wire, before throwing his body in the Tallahatchie River.
Louis must have known that Mississippi’s prevailing social and racial climate couldn’t allow justice for Till. Even so, he did what he knew to be right. Despite Louis’ bravery, the jury spent a mere 67 minutes deliberating before finding Bryant and Milam not guilty.
In an act of villainous braggadocio, Milam and Bryant later admitted to reporters for Look magazine they had murdered Till.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder case, some editorialists have attempted comparisons between the two crimes. While tempting, such comparisons are inexact. For better or worse, Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, didn’t represent an overtly repressive social and governmental order, at least not in the way Bryant and Milam did.
To be sure the Martin case has strong racial overtones, but any putative bias appears to emanate from Zimmerman alone.
Where the comparison is perhaps more apt concerns the jury. Here too though, one might argue sloppy prosecution as opposed to overt bias.
Neither case shows the criminal justice system — or society — in the most attractive light. While we have come a long way from that terrible night in Mississippi, it’s clear that there’s road left to travel.