In this year of Civil Rights retrospection,
a name: Willie Reed, unknown to me until
his death, the haunting details of his story
appear on the front page. At eighteen,
Willie dared to testify, dared to tell
an all-white jury what he saw and heard
that night in Money, Mississippi.
That August night, exactly eight years
before Dr. King’s dream would echo out
from Lincoln’s columns over the thousands
who marched, Willie happened to be walking
to the store when he saw the pick-up truck,
just happened to see the same truck parked
by Milam’s cousin’s barn, just happened
to hear young Emmet Till…hollering…and some licks…a whole lot of them…like somebody was shipping somebody.
Till’s cousin remembers: for him to testifyagainst those men, that was instant death…Pure terror. You had to live those times to even know.
The prosecutor recalls Reed’s barely audible
voice in court: Took more nerve than I have,him picking J.W. Milam out…All Willie
ever uttered, when pressed: Emmetwas fourteen…I couldn’t have walked away.
They whisked Reed off at night to Chicago,
the jury took little more than an hour
to acquit. He married, worked as an orderly,
tried to wear away those memories, but
his widow says he’d often be moaning
in his sleep ̶ still carrying that weight.
And what have we gleaned, sixty years on ̶
Milam’s gang gone, un-convicted, to their maker?
How do we, who commemorate Evers and King
and Birmingham, reckon the escalating tally
of unarmed black men and boys, gunned down
by cops and armed civilians? Will we find
our way to testify ̶ to act, on all that
we’ve witnessed ̶ or walk away?
Copyright 2019 Kathleen O’Toole. FromThis Farby Kathleen O’Toole, published by Paraclete Press.
Emmett Louis Till (1941 – 1955) was a 14-year-old African American who was brutally beaten and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.