A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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 testify against 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: Emmet was 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. From This Far by 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.