Emmett Till’s Surprise Witness

September 4th, 2013by Joy BivinsFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions

Few stories are as heartbreaking as Emmett Louis Till, the Chicago teen murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s alleged offense was that he whistled at a white woman. This “crime” cost him his life; yet unlike many who met a similar fate, Till’s accused murderers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, stood trial.

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Ink-and-wash drawing of Willie Reed on witness stand
Franklin McMahon
Museum collection, ICHi-38437

Despite certain defeat, the prosecution presented a respectable case, which included Willie Reed, a surprise witness. Reed, a teen himself, testified that he saw Till in the truck of one of the accused men and heard terrible screams from inside the barn on the Sheridan Plantation, the property where Till was likely murdered. The three-day trial ended with a swift acquittal by the all-white, all-male jury. After the trial, Reed fled Mississippi to escape violent retaliation.

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Twelve jurors
Franklin McMahon
Museum collection, ICHi-38478

In handwritten notes on his initial sketches of Reed, courtroom artist Franklin McMahon described the youthful witness as wide-eyed, lanky, and eighteen years old. As a native Mississippian, Reed was privy to the strict rules of the Jim Crow South, those that Till had failed to learn. Knowing those rules, Reed, who didn’t know Till, exhibited a great deal of courage in testifying against Bryant and Milam. Undoubtedly, he knew that remaining in Mississippi was not an option. After the trial, Reed relocated to Chicago—Emmett Till’s hometown.

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Pencil sketches of Willie Reed
Franklin McMahon
Museum collection, ICHi-38442

While McMahon’s drawing poignantly captures Reed’s innocence and strength, it also serves as a reminder of the deep stain racial violence leaves behind. Willie Reed, who displayed tremendous courage in an attempt to bring Emmett Till’s murderers to justice, died this July just outside of Chicago. Many reports say that although Mr. Reed fled Mississippi, what he heard and saw there late in the summer of 1955 haunted him throughout his lifetime. How could it not?

McMahon’s courtroom drawing of Willie Reed will be on display as part of Unexpected Chicago in the Museum’s Kolver Family Lobby beginning on Friday, September 6.

> Learn more about Emmett Till on PBS.org

> Explore McMahon’s sketches from the 1969 Chicago Conspiracy Trial

> Experience Unexpected Chicago

> Support the Museum’s collection

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