Mr. Reed died July 18 at a hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. He was 76, and he had lived in Chicago under a different name — first in secrecy and later in relative obscurity — since fleeing Mississippi for his safety nearly 60 years ago. For decades, he had worked as a hospital orderly.
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.
His body, tethered with barbed wire to a cotton gin fan, surfaced in the Tallahatchie River three days later. His assailants had crushed part of his head and gouged out one of his eyes. He was missing an ear.
Mr. Reed knew speaking out against the defendants in the case would make him, too, a target for lynching. But he “couldn’t have walked away,” he said years later. “Emmett was 14,” Mr. Reed told the CBS News show “60 Minutes,” “and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right. . . . I knew that I couldn’t say no.”
“He was a brave kid to do what he did,” said Moses J. Newson, a reporter for an African American publication who covered the Till case. “Blacks weren’t expected to do a lot of testifying against white people in court in Mississippi.”
By the time the trial opened in September 1955, images of Till’s disfigured corpse had circulated throughout the nation, horrifying Americans of all races and helping to galvanize the building movement for civil rights. Tens of thousands of mourners paid their respects at his open coffin in Chicago.
“There was no way I could describe what was in that box,” his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, later told an interviewer. “No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
Back in Mississippi, the white law enforcement establishment failed to mount a vigorous case against the defendants — Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman Till had supposedly offended, and J.W. Milam, an acquaintance of Mr. Reed’s.
With the trial underway, Medgar Evers and other civil rights activists organized an independent search for witnesses who could testify to the defendants’ guilt. Aware of the perils of their mission, the activists disguised themselves as plantation workers when they approached Mr. Reed and persuaded him to appear as a witness for the prosecution.