Obit of the Day: A Hero on the Witness Stand
In late September 1955 hundreds of people, including journalists from around the world, poured into the town of Sumner, Mississippi for the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till. Till was beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan wrapped around his neck for allegedly touching, “wolf whistling,” and making suggestive remarks to Mr. Bryant’s wife, Carolyn.
The trial would last a total of five days and ended with a not guilty verdict. The jury, composed of all white men, deliberated for only 67 minutes. (One juror said that if they hadn’t stopped to have a soda it would have taken less time.)*
During the trial some of the most heroic behavior took place on the witness stand. Several black men agreed to testify against the white defendants at a risk to their own live in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s.
One of the key witnesses was an eighteen-year-old named Wille Reed. With no connection to Emmett Till, Mr. Reed put himself in harm’s simply by telling the court that he saw Bryant and Milam driving a pick-up truck with Till in the backseat.
According to Mr. Reed’s testimony, the men drove into a barn owned by Mr. Milam’s brother. Mr. Reed would hear terrible screaming coming from inside the barn (“Mama, Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy.”) and then the screaming stopped.
Standing near a well outside of the barn, Mr. Milam approached Mr. Reed and, with a pistol in his hand, asked him if he had heard or seen anything. Mr. Reed answered “no,” to both questions.
When it was time for the trial civil rights activists convinced Mr. Reed to testify. Following the trial, to ensure his safety he was smuggled out of town and sent to Chicago where he took on a new identity - Willie Louis.
Mr. Louis would spend the remainder of his life in Chicago. The trauma of the trial and the publicity surrounding it led to a nervous breakdown and he was hospitalized for a period of time. After recovering he would become an orderly, working at Woodlawn and Jackson Park hospital on the city’s South Side.
But he kept his identity a secret. Even from his wife, who would learn of his role in the Till case in 1984 - 13 years after they had first met.
Eventually Mr. Louis was persuaded by Stanley Nelson, an author and filmmaker to share his story. Mr. Louis was featured in the PBS documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Till.
Willie Louis, who suffered from nightmares for decades because of the Till case, died on July 18, 2013 at the age of 79.
(Image: Sept. 29, 1955 file photo, Willie Reed, right, a witness in the Emmett Till murder case in Mississippi, stands outside the door of his apartment in Chicago under guard by Detective Sherman Smith. When he first moved to Chicago Mr. Reed received around the clock security for several months. Copyright Charles Knoblock/Associated Press. Courtesy of sfgate.com)
* Mr. Bryant and Mr. Milam would agree to an interview with Look magazine in 1956. Because they could not be charged again with the crime (“double jeopardy”) the two men confessed to the killing of Emmett Till. More troubling, they did not see anything wrong with what they did. In a small piece of justice, the interview disgusted blacks, and many whites, in the town of Money, Mississippi and the men would go bankrupt after blacks boycotted Mr. Bryant’s shop and bankers refused to give them money for a loan.
Last March Obit of the Day featured a post on Franklin McMahon who was an illustrator for Life magazine who documented the Till trial.
Other civil rights-related posts on OOTD:
Olen Burrage - Participant in the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, aka the “Mississippi Burnng” murders
Patricia Stephens Due - Civil rights leader in Florida
Clara Luper - One of the first individuals to lead a lunch counter sit-in
John Ford Seale - Murderer of two black teenagers who he believed were in the civil rights movement. Mr. Seale died, twice.
Fred Shuttlesworth - Leader of the Souther Christian Leadership Conference
Dr. Joe Williams - St. Louis civil rights leader