Willie Louis may be one of the most celebrated but least-known figures in a pivotal point in American history: He testified against the men accused of kidnapping and murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till. He died July 18, but his wife, Juliet, announced his death this week.
In August 1955, although emancipation had occurred 100 years earlier, much of the Deep South remained unchanged. The murder of young Emmett Till, who was accused of whistling at a white shopkeeper's wife, horrified the nation. In segregated Mississippi, whites weren't ordinarily prosecuted for killing blacks. But the Till murder so shocked the nation that it forced the state into trying the shopkeeper, Roy Bryant, and his stepbrother, J.W. Milam.
And the state allowed a first: a surprise black witness.
"At that time, it was virtually unheard of for a black person to testify against a white, particularly if that person was a sharecropper, dependent on whites for his livelihood," said George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association's wire service, which provides content to the nation's black newspapers. He's also finishing a book on the Till case.
Curry says immediately after Till's murder, local black leaders worked together to spirit Louis, then known as Willie Reed, away to Chicago. They knew his life was in danger. Reed had seen a group of white men in a pickup truck with their black employees and a cowering boy in the bed of the truck.
By the time the trial started in September, Reed was in Chicago but he agreed to return to Mississippi to testify. Curry says the courage that took was unimaginable: "Especially having escaped Mississippi, knowing what the risk involved, and then to voluntarily come back and stand up and testify and point out J.W. Milam in that courtroom was phenomenal."
The atmosphere in the courtroom was tense. About a half-dozen members of the black press came to record the proceedings. Simeon Booker, who covered the trial for Jet magazine, recalls in an oral history for Black Books and Reviews how the black reporters were greeted: "I remember Sheriff Strider who came in the courtroom every morning, 'Hello, niggers!' "
In open court, Reed identified Bryant and Milam as Till's assailants. Sixty-seven minutes later, an all-white jury acquitted both men — a virtually guaranteed outcome that made Reed's testimony all the more courageous.
Reed fled swiftly to Chicago and changed his name to Willie Louis. He worked as a hospital orderly and hardly ever spoke of the trial. His wife, Julia, said she'd been married to him for seven or eight years before he told her. The Mississippi trial left him with terrible nightmares. Yet, he told a CBS reporter, he felt he had to testify: It was, he said, the right thing to do.
Louis died in the Chicago suburb of Oaklawn on July 18. He was 76.