In 1955, 18-year-old Willie Reed of Greenwood, Mississippi saw a green and white Chevrolet pickup truck pass him on the road and stop in front of a barn. He soon heard vicious screams coming from that same barn where a young boy was being savagely beaten. That young boy was 14-year-old Emmett Till. Reed would be the key witness at the trial of J.W. Milam, the main man accused and initially acquitted of Till’s murder.
Reed testified that he had heard the screams and beatings inside the barn. He later saw four men come out of the barn, including J.W. Milam. Milam was carrying a .45 caliber pistol. He came out and interrogated Louis, who told Milam he hadn’t seen or heard anything.
Despite his fearful denial to Milam, Willie Louis walked past the crowd of KKK members outside the Mississippi courthouse and would testify to what he had heard in the barn that night and who he saw coming out of the crime scene. After the trial, Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi to Chicago and changed his name to Willie Louis. He wouldn’t speak about the trial until over eight years later, to his then wife Juliet. Despite his move across the country, the haunted memories of the Till murder caused the Samaritan to have a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized.
Then in 2004, Louis told CBS’ “60 Minutes” about his experience. Willie Louis was a native of Greenwood, Mississippi. He was raised in a family of black sharecroppers and worked in the cotton fields. Though he was 18 years old, Louis was only in the 9th grade during the Emmett Till murder.
Willie Reed died in Oak Lawn, Illinois on July 18, 2013. He was 76 years old and one of the few living witnesses from the Emmett Till trial.
(Photo: Willie Louis stands on the right, AP)