Willie Reed reminds us change has come

Out of America: The Trayvon Martin story is horrifying. But the fate of a witness to an earlier outrage helps put it in the proper context

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When it comes to race in the United States, things are getting better. "Oh really?" you will ask. What about Trayvon Martin, the black kid shot dead in Florida and whose killer was acquitted? And hasn't a Supreme Court ruling just reopened the doors to Jim Crow-style voter discrimination in the South? No wonder people are brushing up on their William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." But then I read the obituaries of Willie Louis.

He died a few days ago at the age of 76. For most of his adult life he had worked as a porter at a Chicago hospital. But almost six decades earlier, when he was 18 years old, Louis had been one of the bravest individuals in America: a black in rural Mississippi, the deepest of the Deep South, who put his life on the line by testifying against two white men on trial for murdering a black boy like him.

The victim was the 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose lynching in August 1955 for supposedly wolf-whistling at a white woman at a grocery shop was one of the galvanising moments of America's civil rights movement. Till, who was from Chicago, had come to Mississippi to visit relatives, and when the woman's husband heard of the incident, he and his brother-in-law went to the house where Till was staying and seized him. After being so savagely beaten that his head was partly crushed and one eye virtually gouged out, the boy was shot and dumped in the Tallahatchie River, his body weighted down by a 75lb cotton gin fan, tied to it with barbed wire.

The trial was held at the Tallahatchie County courthouse in the tiny town of Sumner (the population in 2000 was still only 407). Back then Louis's name was Willie Reed. He didn't know Till, but was persuaded by civil rights activists to testify for the prosecution. In a voice so faint as to be hardly audible, he told the court how he had seen Till being taken away from the house by the two men in a pick-up truck, which he later saw parked outside a barn.

Inside, he testified: "I heard somebody hollering, and I heard some licks like someone was whipping somebody." How many licks, the prosecuting attorney asked: one or two, "or were there several licks?". "There was a whole lot of them," came the answer.

Reed then proceeded to identify one of the defendants as the man he had seen come out of the barn to have a drink from the well outside. His evidence and that of other eyewitnesses was overwhelming. Needless to say, their testimony made not a scrap of difference. The all-white jury took just 67 minutes to acquit. "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long," one juror said afterwards.

And Reed's real troubles were only starting: in Mississippi, the black who dared testify against a white was a marked man. Sympathisers smuggled him out of Sumner to Chicago, where he changed his name to Willie Louis. For the first few months he lived under police protection. Later, he married, but for eight years never told his wife of his role in the Till case.

But the murder haunted his dreams, causing at least one nervous breakdown. Only late in life would he talk publicly about why he had taken so enormous a risk. "I couldn't have walked away from that," Louis told CBS News in 2004, when asked why he had testified. "Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that's not right."

The brutal Till murder, and the subsequent acquittals in defiance of every fact, appalled America and much of the world. A few weeks later separate kidnapping charges against the two men were thrown out by a Mississippi grand jury. Free of the threat of legal double jeopardy, they sold their story in 1956 to Look magazine for $4,000, a massive sum at the time, in which they admitted they had killed the boy.

Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman earlier this month in the Martin case, many have drawn parallels between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till. Both were black teenagers who had strayed out of their normal worlds: Till forgot that habits were very different in the segregated, repressive South from his native Chicago; Martin was taking a short cut through an affluent residential community where a black youngster in a hoodie was automatically suspicious to a vigilante such as Zimmerman. Both – unlike their assailants – were unarmed.

In Till's case, the jury was all-white; in Martin's all were women and all of them white except one, a Puerto Rican. Both trials led to demonstrations: three months after Till's murder, Rosa Parks won her place in history by refusing an order to give up her bus seat to a white: "I thought about Emmett Till and I could not go back," she said later, "I paid the same fare, I felt violated." In cities across the States this month, peaceful rallies of protest have been held against the Zimmerman verdict.

There, however, the similarities end. Of course, race remains a problem in the US, even when a black man occupies the Oval Office, and criminal laws over drugs and violent crime continue to be applied differently for blacks and whites: "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago," President Obama said at an unscheduled appearance in the White House press room.

But the very fact that Zimmerman's acquittal stirred such controversy is of itself a measure of how things have changed. This was no outrage to compare with the Till trial. The jury deliberated not one, but 16 hours, and even the Puerto Rican juror who said last week that Zimmerman probably "got away with murder", acknowledged that, on the basis of evidence, there was no choice but to acquit. And no prosecution witnesses are fleeing to Chicago under an assumed name, like Willie Louis 58 years ago.

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