Monday, August 5, 2013

Willie Louis, Identified Killers of Emmett Till

Willie Louis, Who Named the Killers of Emmett Till at Their Trial, Dies at 76

The truck was going “real fast,” Willie Reed testified, as it came down the main road near Drew, Miss., on an August morning.

Charles Knoblock/Associated Press
Willie Louis in a doorway after testifying in the murder trial, with Detective Sherman Smith.

via Associated Press
Emmett Till was murdered in 1955.
A green and white 1955 Chevrolet — that year’s model — it passed Mr. Reed as he was walking to the store, turned into a nearby plantation and parked in front of a barn.
In the cab, Mr. Reed said, were four white men. In the rear were three black men, plus a fourth — a black youth hunkered down in the very back of the truck.
Soon afterward, Mr. Reed said, he heard “somebody hollering” and “some licks like somebody was whipping somebody” coming from the barn.
The youth in the truck was named Emmett Till, and he would not be seen alive again.
The next month, the 18-year-old Mr. Reed, after braving intimidation from one of the suspects and walking through the thicket of Klansmen massed outside the courthouse, testified in open court to what he had seen and heard.
The son of a family of black sharecroppers, Mr. Reed was spirited out of Mississippi immediately after the trial. He changed his name to Willie Louis and lived discreetly in Chicago, where he worked as a hospital orderly.
Mr. Louis, one of the last living witnesses for the prosecution in the Till case, died on July 18 in Oak Lawn, Ill., a Chicago suburb. He was 76.
Till, had he lived, would have been 72 this Thursday.
The murder of Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi, and the ensuing trial are watershed moments in the civil rights movement, galvanizing public attention on the deep perils of being black in the Jim Crow South.
Though the two white men tried for the murder were acquitted, the testimony of Mr. Reed was considered so powerful that it made him a hero of the movement — albeit a quiet, accidental and long unsung one, who spoke of the case only rarely and with obvious pain.
“Willie Reed stood up, and with incredible bravery pointed out the people who had taken and murdered Emmett Till,” the filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who interviewed Mr. Louis for his 2003 PBS documentary, “The Murder of Emmett Till,” said Wednesday. “He was from Mississippi, and somewhere in his heart of hearts he had to know that these people would not be convicted. But he did what he had to do.”
For decades, Mr. Louis told no one of his involvement in the case. Even his wife, Juliet, whom he married in 1976, did not learn of it until eight years later, when a relative told her.
He began speaking about it publicly only in recent years, with the release of Mr. Nelson’s film and another documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” (2005), directed by Keith Beauchamp.
“I couldn’t have walked away from that,” Mr. Louis told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2004, speaking of his decision to testify. “Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right.”
Mr. Louis was born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1937 and as a youth lived with his grandfather in Drew. He worked in the fields picking cotton and received little formal education: though he was 18 at the time of the trial, he was only in the ninth grade.
On Aug. 21, 1955, Emmett Till arrived in Money, Miss., about 30 miles from Drew, to stay at the home of a great-uncle, Moses Wright. On Aug. 24, Till visited Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a store in Money owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant.
Inside the store, Mrs. Bryant later testified, Till grabbed her hand and made a sexual suggestion. Leaving the store, according to some accounts, he let out a wolf whistle.
Early in the morning on Aug. 28, Mr. Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam abducted Till from his uncle’s home. His body, brutally beaten, shot in the head and weighed down with a cotton-gin fan laced round his neck with barbed wire, was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later.
“It didn’t hit him until after a picture was released that the kid that he saw in the back of the truck was in fact Emmett Till,” Mr. Beauchamp, the filmmaker, said of Willie Reed on Wednesday.

Willie Louis, Who Named the Killers of Emmett Till at Their Trial, Dies at 76

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After passing Mr. Reed, the truck turned onto a plantation belonging to Leslie Milam, Mr. Milam’s brother, and parked outside a barn. When he passed the barn on foot, he said, he heard the beating.

An F.B.I. transcript from the trial in the Emmett Till murder case.
As he looked on, Mr. Reed later said, Mr. Milam emerged, a pistol at his side.
“Did you hear anything?” he recalled Mr. Milam asking him.
“No, sir, I didn’t,” he replied, terrified.
After Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam were arrested and charged with Till’s kidnapping and murder, a group of black civil rights workers and white journalists prevailed on Mr. Reed to testify.
“He was really the best eyewitness that they found,” David T. Beito, a historian at the University of Alabama who has written about the Till case, said Wednesday. “I don’t want to diminish the role played by the other witnesses, but his act in some sense was the bravest act of them all. He had nothing to gain: he had no family ties to Emmett Till; he didn’t know him. He was this 18-year-old kid who goes into this very hostile atmosphere.”
The trial opened Sept. 19, 1955. On Sept. 23, the all-white jury, after deliberating for 67 minutes, acquitted both defendants.
Mr. Reed’s testimony, Professor Beito said, was no less valuable for that.
“The prosecution — and this is not emphasized enough — was arguing a conspiracy case,” he said. “They were arguing that more than two people were involved in the crime, that it wasn’t just Milam and Bryant. And Reed’s testimony was that it was a crowded pickup.”
The other white men in the truck were believed to be cronies of Mr. Milam and Mr. Bryant, the black men employees of Mr. Milam who were forced to take part in the crime. None of the other men, black or white, was ever charged.
With the aid of T. R. M. Howard, a prominent local black doctor and civil rights advocate, Willie Reed was sent to Chicago, where he was given round-the-clock police protection at first. But the terrors of the crime and trial overtook him, and he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown.
For years during their marriage, Mr. Louis suffered from nightmares, Juliet Louis told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Besides his wife, who confirmed his death to The A.P., Mr. Louis’s survivors include a stepson, Sollie McKinnon; grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.
J. W. Milam died in 1980, Roy Bryant in 1994. In a 1956 article in Look magazine for which they were paid, the two men admitted to having murdered Till.
In an interview with Professor Beito and his wife, Linda Royster Beito, for their 2009 book, “Black Maverick: T. R. M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power,” Mr. Louis looked back on the Till case with bewildered dismay. “Some people say he whistled at a white lady,” Mr. Louis told his interviewers. “You know that wasn’t nothing to kill nobody about.”


Willie Louis, previously Willie Reed (June 14, 1937 – July 18, 2013) was a witness to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. Till was an African-American teenager from Chicago who was murdered in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman in a Money, Mississippi grocery store. Till's murder was a watershed moment in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Louis testified in court about what he had seen, but an all-white jury found the men not guilty. Fearing for his life, Louis moved to Chicago after the trial and changed his name from Willie Reed to Willie Louis. He was interviewed in 2003 for the PBS documentary The Murder of Emmett Till and was interviewed the next year on the CBS News television program 60 Minutes.

Willie Reed, as Willie Louis was then known, was born in 1937 in Greenwood, Mississippi at the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta. He was raised in Drew, Mississippi, by his grandparents who worked as sharecroppers. Reed received little formal education and worked in the cotton fields.

Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi in August 1955. He was a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago who was reportedly murdered for having reportedly flirted with and whistled at a 21-year-old white woman in a grocery store. The case and subsequent trial were "watershed moments in the civil rights movement, galvanizing public attention on the deep perils of being black in the Jim Crow South."

On the morning of Sunday, August 28, 1955, Reed, who was then 18 years old, was walking on a dirt road near Drew, Mississippi, when he saw a green-and-white Chevrolet pick-up drive past him with four white men in the front and three African-American men and an African-American youth seated with his back to the cab. Reed recognized two of the men in the front seat as Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman who Till had reportedly whistled at, and J.W. Milam, Bryant's half-brother.

Reed saw the truck pull into a plantation owned by Milam's brother and park in front of a barn. As he walked closer, he heard a boy inside the barn yelling, "Mama, save me!" He also heard the sounds of blows landing on a body and voices cursing and yelling, "Get down, you black bastard." Reed ran to the nearby house of Amanda Bradley and told her what he had seen and heard. Reed and another individual were sent to get water from a well near the barn. As they did, they heard the continuing sound of the beating until the cries became fainter and then stopped.

As Reed walked back toward the Bradley house, Milam emerged from the barn with a pistol at his side. Milam confronted Reed and asked if he had seen or heard anything. Reed told Milam that he had not. Reed returned to the Bradley house and watched from a window as the men in the barn loaded what appeared to be a body into the pick-up truck.

On August 31, 1955, Till's lynched body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River. The body showed signs that Till had been brutally beaten and shot in the head. Reed saw a photograph of Till in the newspaper and recognized him as the youth who he had seen hunkered down in the truck. Bryant and Milam were arrested for the murder, but Reed's grandfather warned Reed that he would be risking his safety if he spoke up. Louis was later approached by civil rights workers who persuaded him to testify in court. To ensure his safety, Reed went into hiding until the trial.

When Reed arrived at the courthouse to testify in the middle of September 1955, he was met by a "thicket of Klansmen massed outside the courthouse." Reed testified at the trial. He was shown a picture of Till and testified that it looked like the boy he had seen in the back of the truck. He also identified Milam and testified that he saw Milam come out of the barn to get a drink of water and then return to the barn. In his closing argument, the prosecutor reviewed Reed's testimony, noting that if Willie had been lying, the defense would have had needed 50 lawyers to discredit him. The prosecutor argued they couldn't do that "because Willie Reed was telling the truth." He finished by saying, "I don't know but what Willie Reed has more nerve than I have." Despite Reed's testimony and other evidence, Bryant and Milam were found not guilty after an hour of deliberation by an all-white jury.

In the aftermath of the trial, some suggested that Reed had not been a good witness, noting that he had given inconsistent accounts as to how far he was from Milam and whether he really recognized him. Even Till's mother later said that "Little Willie Reed" was "not a good witness." She added, "Willie Reed had a story, but he couldn't tell it. It was locked inside him. It would have taken education to put the key in the lock and turn it loose. Every word that was gotten from Willie had to be pulled out word by word. That's because Willie is 18 years old and has probably been to school only 3 years."

Others had a more positive reaction to Reed's testimony. The Jackson Daily News described his testimony as "the most damaging introduced thus far" and as having "electrified the court."   The New York Times later wrote that Reed's testimony "made him a hero" of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The Daily Worker published an article titled "The Shame of Our Nation" expressing outrage at the result but praising Reed and other witnesses as "heroes of the Negro people ... who stood up in court and in defiance of a white supremacist code fearlessly gave their testimony."

Historian David T. Beito said of Reed: "He was really the best eyewitness that they found. . . . [H]is act in some sense was the bravest act of them all. He had nothing to gain: he had no family ties to Emmett Till; he didn't know him. He was this 18-year-old kid who goes into this very hostile atmosphere."

After testifying in the Till case, Reed moved to Chicago and changed his name from Willie Reed to Willie Louis. He was employed as an orderly at Woodlawn Hospital and later at Jackson Park Hospital. In 1976, he was married to Juliet Louis, who was a nursing aide at Jackson Park. Louis remained silent about his role in the Emmett Till case. His wife did not even learn of his connection to the case until 1984.

In 2003, Louis was located and interviewed by Stanley Nelson, who later wrote a book and produced a documentary on the case. Nelson's documentary, The Murder of Emmett Till, was broadcast on PBS television in the United States and included an interview with Louis.

Thereafter, Louis met Till's mother and began speaking in public about the case. In 2004, he was interviewed on the CBS News television show 60 Minutes.  During the interview on 60 Minutes, Louis explained his reasoning in deciding to testify: "I couldn't have walked away from that. Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he come to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that's not right."

In July 2013, Louis died of intestinal bleeding at age 76 in Oak Lawn, Illinois.

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