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"When I saw his body and what it was like, I knew I couldn't say no."
July 20, 2013 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Willie Reed, key witness in the Emmett Till case, has died in Chicago at age 76. Reed was an 18-year-old sharecropper who witnessed Emmett Till's murder in August 1955. Despite being threatened at gunpoint by J.W. Milam, one of Till's killers, Reed came forward to serve as a surprise witness for the prosecution at trial [PDF of Reed's testimony].

After Milam and Bryant were acquitted by a jury that deliberated for 67 minutes, Reed and Moses Wright, Till's great uncle, were smuggled out of Mississippi to Chicago for their safety. Reed suffered a nervous breakdown shortly thereafter and was hospitalized. He remained in Chicago and changed his name to Willie Louis.

Milam and Roy Bryant confessed to Till's murder after they were found not guilty at trial; knowing they could not be re-tried, they sold their account to Look magazine for $4,000.

Previously.
posted by liketitanic (66 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by localroger at 2:10 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by ambrosia at 2:12 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by Amplify at 2:13 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by Mister Bijou at 2:22 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by ipsative at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2013


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May we live up to your courage and integrity.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:24 PM on July 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


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posted by oneswellfoop at 2:27 PM on July 20, 2013


Willie Reed was 18 years old when he witnessed the murder of Emmett Till

Hardly a man in years, but fully a man in heart.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 2:31 PM on July 20, 2013 [17 favorites]


From the Look account: "Niggers ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government."
posted by nev at 2:34 PM on July 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


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posted by mumimor at 2:43 PM on July 20, 2013


The majority -- by no means all, but the majority -- of the white people in Mississippi 1) either approve Big Milam's action or else 2) they don't disapprove enough to risk giving their "enemies" the satisfaction of a conviction.

Would it be a fair statement to say that I have a hatred for the majority -- by no means all, but the majority -- of the white people in Mississippi who were alive at that time?
posted by hal_c_on at 3:08 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


RIP

Hard to imagine the level of integrity in a man like Reed.
posted by Teakettle at 3:13 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by Blue Jello Elf at 3:27 PM on July 20, 2013


Milam and Roy Bryant confessed to Till's murder after they were found not guilty at trial; knowing they could not be re-tried, they sold their account to Look magazine for $4,000.

I know I have an absolute hatred for the editors and publishers of Look magazine at the time of that deal. Those pieces of shit.
posted by orange swan at 3:30 PM on July 20, 2013 [13 favorites]


Some of the letters to the editor on the Look Magazine article are stomach-twisting.

...To publish this story, of which no one is proud, but which was certainly justified, smacks loudy of circulation hunting. Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam did what had to be done, and their courage in taking the course they did is to be commended. To have followed any other course would have been unrealistic, cowardly and not in the best interest of their family or country.
Richard Lauchli
Collinsville, Illinois


I guess "Don't read the comments!" predates the internet.
posted by Alison at 3:36 PM on July 20, 2013 [37 favorites]


Brave, brave guy.

I kind of have this mental list of people who risked/gave their lives or made enormous personal sacrifices, for the love of their fellow humans, when turning and walking away would have actually been the easiest, relatively consequence-free thing to do. I remember them all the time, especially the ones who acted as children/teenagers, and will remember Willie too.
posted by cairdeas at 3:37 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess "Don't read the comments!" predates the internet.

You know, it actually makes me feel a bit better about internet comments, in that nobody proudly signs their full name and location to those kinds of sentiments anymore. Who knew the anonymity of trolls might actually be a sign of progress in a good direction.
posted by cairdeas at 3:39 PM on July 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


... If you are slurring the people of Mississippi because they did not condemn the two white men, then remind yourself that the two men did not deliberately start the chain of action. For that matter, neither did the Till boy. All of it was precipitated by backgrounds and events outside the main actors in the drama. Regrettable to be sure. But you and I are as much to blame for the killing as the ones who were directly involved...The things is done and nothing anyone can do will bring the Till boy back, but if we fail to learn the obvious lessons from this, there will be other and worse such cases...
C. R. L. Rader
Marion, North Carolina


This feels like it could have been written by a letter writer about the Trayvon Martin case. What a brave man, to stand up in a world like that, and speak against such endemic hatred.
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:43 PM on July 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


That letter from C R L Rader made me think of this, written in 1963 by Bob Dylan and first performed by him in Greenwood, Mississippi, that same year: Only A Pawn In Their Game
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:57 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dylan: Only a Pawn In Their Game (SLYT)
posted by Mister Bijou at 4:01 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


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posted by quazichimp at 4:08 PM on July 20, 2013


I know I have an absolute hatred for the editors and publishers of Look magazine at the time of that deal. Those pieces of shit.

OK, that's about $35,000 in today's dollars, but paying for interviews was a pretty common practice back then. There was also very little of the modern taboo against profiting from a criminal act.

If it's about just publishing the confession, it was probably because the Cowles family, which published Look, had a strong pro-civil-rights stance.
posted by dhartung at 4:27 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by Brian Puccio at 4:40 PM on July 20, 2013


My god, the giants who walked among us back then, their necks pinned to the ground by the feet of crowds of tiny, tiny goblins.
posted by Etrigan at 4:55 PM on July 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Richard Lauchli"

You mean the guy who was convicted on at least three separate occasions on firearms related charges? One involving stolen bazookas, and another involving machine guns?
posted by zippy at 5:10 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Milam's Grocery, these days.
posted by timsteil at 5:16 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by goo at 5:22 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by crayz at 5:23 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by scody at 5:27 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by bunderful at 5:38 PM on July 20, 2013


Why wouldn't they have been prosecuted after confessing?

It's my understanding that once found not guilty you can't be tried again for the same crime ... unless new evidence emerges. Isn't the confession in Look new evidence?
posted by bunderful at 5:39 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by trip and a half at 5:41 PM on July 20, 2013


No bunderfel the double jeopardy clause says that once you have been acquitted of a crime you can't be retried for that crime at all. That was necessary because there were egregious abuses in England of people being tried and tried again and re-re-tried until they could get a conviction. So the Founders decided that the System gets one shot at you and it better be good.

In Sanford it wasn't.
posted by localroger at 6:01 PM on July 20, 2013


Keep in mind, too, that any federal civil rights laws that Till's murderers could have been tried under were at least a decade away at that point (and they couldn't be tried ex post facto once the laws were in place, anyway).

There's a discussion on the Straight Dope boards about how double jeopardy applied in the Till case here.
posted by scody at 6:26 PM on July 20, 2013


Thanks, localroger and scody. Off to read the dope ..
posted by bunderful at 6:27 PM on July 20, 2013


I was fascinated to learn that double jeopardy was recently partially repealed in the UK, though (after a racially motivated crime, no less).
posted by nev at 6:38 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by mynameisluka at 6:38 PM on July 20, 2013


Of course, this preceded the Federal Laws making such crimes fall under the umbrella of "civil rights violation". Which is why we won't hear Z's true story for a while still...
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:42 PM on July 20, 2013


No bunderfel the double jeopardy clause says that once you have been acquitted of a crime you can't be retried for that crime at all.

Ok. But can't they be tried for a litany of other crimes ranging from assault to perjury?
posted by hal_c_on at 6:42 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Please tell me the racist assholes went on to live lives of misery and suffering.
posted by maxwelton at 7:25 PM on July 20, 2013


I am in awe of the courage it would have taken to testify.

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posted by tuesdayschild at 7:43 PM on July 20, 2013


It must have been so incredibly frustrating (such an inadequate word) to put yourself in mortal danger to testify and still have the obviously guilty assholes acquitted.

I'm also surprised that he was even allowed to testify. Many times, blacks were not allowed to testify against whites.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 7:52 PM on July 20, 2013


Please tell me the racist assholes went on to live lives of misery and suffering.

The murderers definitely had some hardships, though not enough. According to this 1985 Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News article, Bryant and Milam both had to leave Mississippi because they were ostracized by both the black and white communities and could no longer make a living there. Bryant and his wife had to close the store where the alleged whistling took place because his former customers boycotted it. But later, in 1972, he was able to return to the state and take over a store that a family member had set up and at least make a living from a clientele that was more black than white. I wish his patrons had known who he was, because I bet he wouldn't have had any custom to speak of.

And he expressed no remorse at all for what he did.
posted by orange swan at 8:15 PM on July 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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posted by toerinishuman at 8:24 PM on July 20, 2013


Gentlemen, step right up and meet the Southern Strategy.
posted by carping demon at 9:00 PM on July 20, 2013


William Bradford Huie ( who wrote the Look article) was not a racist; in fact he was jailed for his collaborations with Zora Neale Hurston and MLK Jr. wrote the introduction for an edition of his book on Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner.
posted by brujita at 9:06 PM on July 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


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posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:26 PM on July 20, 2013


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posted by daybeforetheday at 1:38 AM on July 21, 2013


No bunderfel the double jeopardy clause says that once you have been acquitted of a crime you can't be retried for that crime at all.

Ok. But can't they be tried for a litany of other crimes ranging from assault to perjury?
posted by hal_c_on


Yeah, this. Why weren't they tried for perjury at least?
posted by bunderful at 5:53 AM on July 21, 2013


What a brave man, to stand up in a world like that, and speak against such endemic hatred.

And how heartbreaking he was alive to see Trayvon's case and Zimmerman's acquittal, and to realize not a damn fucking thing has changed since he was 18.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:34 AM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


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(Dammit. I'm in Chicago right now but won't be in town when they hold the memorial services... Wish I could go.)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2013


and to realize not a damn fucking thing has changed since he was 18.

Awful as the Martin case and its conclusion were, this statement reflects a vast ignorance of just how bad things were in the 1960's. We definitely still have far to go, but we have also come far. In the 1960's Zimmerman would have got a hearty pat on the back and you would have been taking your life in your hands as Willie Reed effectively did to challenge the outcome in any way.
posted by localroger at 8:08 AM on July 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


Awful as the Martin case and its conclusion were, this statement reflects a vast ignorance of just how bad things were in the 1960's. We definitely still have far to go, but we have also come far.

Yes, this is true. I think the way in which things have not changed is this: most white folks (of which I am one, so don't lose your shit, brethren) are not willing to do more than has been asked of them in order to move justice and equality forward.
posted by liketitanic at 8:34 AM on July 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Milam and Roy Bryant confessed to Till's murder after they were found not guilty at trial; knowing they could not be re-tried, they sold their account to Look magazine for $4,000.

I know I have an absolute hatred for the editors and publishers of Look magazine at the time of that deal. Those pieces of shit.


After learning more about that magazine article, I'd like to retract that statement of mine. I see now that Look's intentions were good. I haven't read the article, but I have learned that it is considered damning of Till's murderers, and that Bryant and Milam lost most of their support in Mississippi after it came out. The thought of those monsters profiting from their confession still makes me nearly sick to my stomach, but as someone said above there wasn't the same attitude on profiting from crime then, Look's editors paid for the confession as a means to an end, which you can argue was achieved, and the negative publicity probably cost Bryant and Milam much more than $4000 in lost earnings long term.
posted by orange swan at 8:56 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


This old article from NYtimes interview the men who played a role in the acquittal of the killers, 2 jurors and 2 defense lawyers. Decades after the fact, the world has moved on and they seem aware that what seemed like the natural course of things back then is no longer accepted by the general public. It was interesting to hear their self-justifications, the twists and turns of their logic in their effort to absolve themselves of responsiblity. I am haunted by the mention of how one of the jurors back then (not either of these two) voted twice to convict but finally broke down and went along with the herd and acquiesced in setting the killers free. 12 Angry Men was filmed just the next year.
posted by Pantalaimon at 12:07 PM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why wouldn't they have been prosecuted after confessing?

bunderful you may be thinking of cases where there is a mistrial due to a hung jury. in that instance the case can be reopened with new evidence. that is exactly what happened with the murderer of Medgar Evers, the new evidence consisted of his boasting of the murder to others.
posted by camdan at 11:12 PM on July 21, 2013


cairdeas:

People routinely sign these sentiments with their real names (and sometimes employer!), especially when a site uses Facebook as its commenting system.
posted by mkb at 6:57 AM on July 22, 2013


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posted by likeatoaster at 7:04 AM on July 22, 2013


Hey, some of y'all are quoted here. Weird but I'm glad this is here as a resource because I've only seen that one ABC obit. so far.
posted by liketitanic at 8:13 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, some of y'all are quoted here.

...Had I known that I might be quoted in wider circles I may not have used the f-bomb.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:46 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


...Had I known that I might be quoted in wider circles I may not have used the f-bomb.

And isn't that really a lesson for us all?
posted by liketitanic at 10:19 AM on July 22, 2013


bunderful you may be thinking of cases where there is a mistrial due to a hung jury. in that instance the case can be reopened with new evidence. that is exactly what happened with the murderer of Medgar Evers, the new evidence consisted of his boasting of the murder to others.

The perjury was a separate crime, though. Not the same crime that they were already tried for.

Is there no consequence for perjury after a judgment is made?
posted by bunderful at 6:11 PM on July 22, 2013


Is there no consequence for perjury after a judgment is made?

I think this explains it well: the DA didn't want to charge them, in part because he would have had to charge half the town's law enforcement. "As Conrad points out, hardly any lynching cases were prosecuted at all; when they were, it was usually because outside pressure forced local officials to go through the motions of prosecuting, which typically is all they did. In the context of the Emmett Till case he notes: "Sheriff Strider, proudly racist and willing to commit perjury in order to protect Bryant and Milam, certainly did his part to avoid a conviction. The prosecution never attempted to move the case out of virulently racist Tallahatchie County. The methods of jury selection that created an all-white jury in a county that was predominantly black were never questioned."
posted by liketitanic at 6:40 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks, liketitanic.

So it wasn't that the law didn't allow it, it was that local officials made that decision.
posted by bunderful at 6:48 PM on July 22, 2013


That's what it seems like, yes.
posted by liketitanic at 7:11 PM on July 22, 2013


Right. This was the thing about Jim Crow: it was totally, completely, utterly pervasive. Who, exactly, was going to arrest/prosecute/convict Bryant and Milam for perjury? The same people who happily acquitted them of murder?
posted by scody at 7:45 PM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


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