Willie Reed did not know Emmett Till, the young black man whose murder in the Mississippi Delta became one of the most infamous lynchings in the history of the Jim Crow South. Mr. Reed saw him only once — on Aug. 28, 1955, during the last hours of Till’s life — in the back of a green and white Chevrolet pickup truck.
Mr. Reed, an African American sharecropper, risked his life at 18 to appear as a surprise witness in the prosecution of the white men accused of the crime. He became the momentary hero of the Till trial, an event that helped spur the civil rights movement but left a moral stain on the American legal system.
Till, who would have turned 72 on Thursday, was, in 1955, a Chicago teenager unacquainted with the strain of racism prevalent in the South. Accused of whistling at or otherwise affronting a white woman, he was abducted from his relatives’ home near the hamlet called Money, then beaten and executed.