Willie Louis, key witness in 1955 Emmett Till murder case, dies at 76
BY BECKY SCHLIKERMAN Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org July 23, 2013 8:22PM
Willie Louis was a witness for the prosecution in the Emmett Till case. He was known as Wiile Reed at the time of the trial. | University of Memphis Library photo
Updated: August 25, 2013 6:35AM
Willie Louis heard Emmett Till scream as he was viciously beaten in 1955.
And Mr. Louis bravely testified in court against two white men — telling the jury of the “hollering” and “licks” he heard — despite the danger his testimony posed in the segregated South.
Mr. Louis, who went by the name Willie Reed before moving to Chicago after the historic trial in Mississippi, died July 18 at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, his wife said. Mr. Louis, a longtime Englewood resident, was 76.
“What stood out, and what stands out to me about Willie the most, is his courage,” said Emmett Till’s cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, 74, who had traveled to Mississippi with Emmett Till. “He was nothing but a godsend.”
Mike Small, a teacher who has studied the landmark case, called Mr. Louis “one of the unsung civil rights heroes in Chicago.”
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was murdered after whistling at a white woman outside a grocery store in Mississippi.
The youth was kidnapped and taken to a tool shed.
It was near there that Mr. Louis, then 18, saw the boy in a truck with several other men. Mr. Louis also heard a beating coming from inside that tool shed. The truck had also been parked in front of the shed.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” nearly a decade ago, Mr. Louis said, “I heard the screaming, beating, the screaming and beating.”
Mr. Louis was also approached by one of the accused killers, J.W. Milam, who carried with him a pistol, and asked if he’d heard anything. Mr. Louis told him he hadn’t seen anything, he told “60 Minutes.”
But Mr. Louis couldn’t keep secret what he saw, becoming a key witness in the trial. Despite his testimony, the all-white jury acquitted Milam and co-defendant Roy Bryant. The murder and acquittal were among the sparks that ignited the civil rights movement.
“I couldn’t have walked away from that like that because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life and had come to visit his grandfather, and they killed him. That’s not right,” he said in the interview.
The trial took a toll on Mr. Louis. The Greenwood. Miss., native was whisked away after the trial and came to Chicago where he suffered a nervous breakdown, his wife, Juliet Louis, 68, said. Mr. Louis also changed his name to find anonymity.
Mr. Louis worked at Jackson Park Hospital as a surgical orderly for nearly 50 years. That’s where he met his wife.
The pair were working in the intensive care unit at the hospital and Mr. Louis sweet-talked the nurse’s aide.
“He said ‘Hey there. Why don’t you come over here and give me a kiss?’” Juliet Louis said. “I went over there and kissed him on his jaw.”
The couple married in 1976. It was nearly eight years later that Juliet Louis found out about her husband’s involvement in the Emmett Till case.
“He never really got over that,” Juliet Louis said. That was something that really bothered him, and he was keeping it in him.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Louis is survived by his step-son, Sollie McKinnon; seven grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Services will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at New Commandment Church of God in Christ, 1742 W. 63rd St.