In one of the most memorable scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), African American spectators stand in a show of respect as Atticus Finch, who had argued fiercely for a man unjustly accused of rape, walks from a courtroom.
Willie Reed deserved the same solemn homage for testifying in the 1955 Emmett Till murder trial. Till, fourteen, had been lynched for supposedly making a sound or gesture that offended a white woman in Mississippi. Two white men had been charged with killing the young man. Although Reed had never met Till, he had spotted several men and a young black man in a Chevy pickup one night. He later he saw one of the defendants beating Till. He learned the identity of the victim from a newspaper photograph that appeared after Till’s murder.
African Americans put their lives on the line by testifying against white people in Mississippi in the 1950s. Yet Reed voluntarily took the stand on September 19, 1955. “For him to testify against these men, that was instant death,” said Simeon Wright, a cousin of Till’s. Reed knew the risk he was taking but told “60 Minutes” in 2004 that he felt compelled to testify. “Emmett was fourteen, and they killed him,” He said. “I mean, that’s not right. … I knew that I couldn’t say no.”
Despite what the Washington Post in 2013 called “overwhelming incriminating evidence,” an all-white jury acquitted J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Milam and Bryant would later confess their crime in a Look magazine article.
Reed moved to Chicago, changed his name to Willie Louis, and remained under police protection for several months. “His stepping forward, his testifying, it was just a very courageous act on his part,” Wheeler Parker, another relative of Till’s, told the Washington Post after Reed’s death in 2013. “It’s beyond words for me to explain.”