CHICAGO – Hearing the screams of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till from inside a Mississippi barn left a teenage field hand with an unbearable choice. He could tell a courtroom and risk paying for it with his life or keep quiet and let those screams eat away at his conscience.
Grisly photos of Till’s mutilated body, discovered three days later by a fisherman in the Tallahatchie River, left Willie
Louis with no doubt about what he would do: testify at the trial of two white men accused in the black teen’s slaying.
“In the pictures, I saw his body, what it was like. Then I knew that I couldn’t say no,” Louis recalled in a 2004 60 Minutes interview about the testimony he gave half a century earlier.
Louis died July 18 at age 76 at a hospital in a suburb of Chicago, the city he fled to in fear of his life after the 1955 trial, his wife, Juliet Louis, said in an interview July 24, a few hours before her husband’s funeral service.
Till’s torture and killing in the Mississippi Delta galvanized the civil rights movement. The Chicago boy was visiting an uncle and had been warned by family to be on his best behavior in the segregated South. On Aug. 28, 1955, two white men abducted him from his uncle’s home because he had whistled at one of their wives. They admitted to the kidnapping, but claimed they just wanted to scare the boy and that they eventually turned him loose.
When his body was pulled from the river, his left eye and an ear were missing, as were most of his teeth; his nose was crushed, and there was a hole in his right temple. His body had been weighted down with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.
The only witnesses prosecutors had were the boy’s uncle and a cousin, and all they could say was that they had seen Till taken away. Then, news reporters helped track down Willie Louis, who had heard the beating taking place for hours.
Despite his testimony, an all-white jury took barely an hour to acquit the two men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam.
A few months later, after assurances they couldn’t be tried again, the two men confessed to the killing in a magazine article for which they were paid a few thousand dollars for the “true” story.
For his own safety, Louis had to be smuggled out of his native Mississippi and taken to Chicago. Then known as Willie Reed, he changed his last name, and was put under police protection.
Louis, a central figure in one of the most pivotal moments in America’s troubled history with race, soon drifted into obscurity.
For years, he told his story to no one, not even his future wife, who had followed the trial closely as an 11-year-old growing up in Till’s home city.
“I never really put that together that he was actually the young man that testified at the trial,” she said of her husband.
“We thought he was crazy. I know my mom said they going to kill him too.”
The couple met in the early 1970s at a hospital they worked at on Chicago’s far South Side when Louis cheekily asked the nurse’s aide for a kiss as they were lifting a patient together onto a gurney.
“So I went over to the other side and kissed him on the jaw. And that’s how we started seeing one another,” she said with a laugh.
They married in 1976, but it wasn’t until eight years later that she discovered the connection with the Till case when one of Louis’ aunts mentioned it.
She was shocked but understood that talking about it was painful for him.
“He used to have real nightmares and things,” Juliet Louis said. “All his life it bothered him. When he would talk about it, sometimes tears would be in his eyes.”
Till’s relatives, historians and documentary makers, meanwhile, had been searching for Willie Reed, wondering what had become of him.
A New York filmmaker eventually tracked him to his home in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, and later introduced him to Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley.
“She just cried when they took him over there,” Juliet Louis recalled. “They always kept in touch after that.” Till’s mother died in 2003.
Gradually, Willie Louis began telling his story. On 60 Minutes, he said Emmett’s screams haunted him.
I heard this screaming, beating, screaming and beating,” he said. “And I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, man, they’re beating somebody in the barn.’”
Besides his wife, Louis is survived by a stepson, seven grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.