CHICAGO (CBS) — A key witness of the 1955 murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till has died.
WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports 76-year-old Willie Louis was considered an unsung hero of the civil rights movement for testifying against the two white men charged with killing Till, a 14-year-old black boy, for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
Till’s murder was one of the sparks of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s.
Louis died at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn last week.
He was born Willie Reed, but after hearing Till’s screams as he was beaten to death in a Mississippi barn, and testifying against two white men charged with killing the black teen for whistling at a white woman, Reed was smuggled to Chicago, where he changed his name to Willie Louis.
Louis told the CBS News broadcast “60 Minutes” almost a decade ago that, “I heard this screaming, beating, screaming and beating. And I said to myself, ‘Milam and them beating somebody in the barn.’ I could hear the beating. I mean, I could hear the licks.”
According to Reed and another witness, four white men came out of the barn, including J.W. Milam.
Milam walked right up to Reed, carrying a .45-caliber pistol.
“He (Milam) asked and said, ‘Listen, did you all hear anything?’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t heard anything,'” Reed said. “Somebody was being beaten. But then, you see Milam come, like I said, with khaki pants on and a green shirt, and a .45 on his side. Then he asks you, what you gonna say? ‘I didn’t hear anything.'”
But Louis went on to be a key witness in the trial in which an all-white jury acquitted Milam and co-defendant Roy Bryant.
Fearing for his life after testifying against Milam and Bryant, Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi. He moved to Chicago, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. He also changed his name, seeking anonymity.
Why did he decide to speak out to “60 Minutes”?
“I couldn’t have walked away from that like that,” he replied. “Because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather,” Reed told the broadcast. “And they killed him. That’s not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, then I knew that I couldn’t say no.”