If there is a public aspect to the word “witness” then Willie Louis, once Willie Reed, beautifully embodies it. As an 18 year-old, sharecropper’s son, Willie Reed was walking to a store, in 1955, near Drew, Mississippi. A Chevy pick-up truck passed him with four white men in the front, a few black men in the back, and a black youth who was crouched down in the truck’s bed. He later walked passed a roadside barn, where the truck was parked. He heard “somebody hollering” and kept walking. Before he got far, a man named Milam walked out of the barn with a pistol at his waist. He asked “Did you hear anything?” Willie Reed said, “No.”
He would later realize the boy crouching in the back of the pick-up truck was 14 year-old Emmett Till. He was the one being beaten in the barn, later shot, killed, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. With that realization, Willie Reed made a remarkably brave decision. He decided to testify against the white men he saw that day in the truck. For 1955 Mississippi, this was a life-threatening decision: to point out, in open court, the men he saw in the truck and outside the barn, the night Emmett Till was murdered.
In a CBS “60 Minutes” interview back in 2004, he said simply, “I couldn’t have walked away from that.”
Emmett Till, a 14 year-old from Chicago, was sent by his mother, Mamie Till, to spend part of the summer of 1955 in Mississippi, to get to know his relatives there. On August 24, 1955, he visited Bryant’s Groocery & Meat Market, in Money, Mississippi, where he was accused of grabbing the hand of Mrs. Bryant, and whistling at her as he left the store. Four days later, August 28th, Roy Bryant, Mrs. Bryant’s husband, and his half-brother J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s house and took him to the barn where Willie Louis heard him screaming.
Entering the courthouse that day, a 9th grader, Willie Reed walked past a phalanx of Klansmen, and made his dramatic testimony. He pointed out both Bryant and Milam in the courtroom. Being 1955 Mississippi, it only took one hour for the jury to return a verdict of “not guilty.” Willie Reed had to be taken out of Mississippi by friends and relocated to Chicago, where he had 24-hour police protection. For his own safety, he also changed his name to Willie Louis.
In 1956, both Milam and Bryant admitted in Look magazine to murdering Emmett Till.
Now, as Willie Louis, he rarely spoke about his testimony or the murder of Emmett Till. He only told his wife after they’d been married several years. He experienced nightmares and a nervous breakdown as a result of his experience.
Willie Louis died in Chicago on July 18th 2013, at the age of 76. His wife Juliet survives him, along with a stepson and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Willie Louis was a witness, in the truest sense of the word. He not only saw something in the dark, that needed to be brought into the light, he also spoke about what he saw, in the public light of a courtroom. He did all this at a great cost. His life was dramatically changed because he spoke about what he saw. Willie Louis might not be a well-known name in the host of civil rights heroes many of us know, but his decision to speak up, makes him a rich and courageous witness in American history. Let us never forget Willie Louis.
Photo Credit: Charles Knobloch/AP