Days before he took the stand to
testify Willie Louis was kept in the darkness of an attic to make sure no one
would get to him. That would have given him plenty of time to think about
backing out, running away or developing a sudden memory loss. Though his
testimony in the Emmett Till trial didn't change the course of history years
before it was ever adopted as a slogan; Willie Louis lived up to the phrase
"I am a man."
For fifty years he chose to submerge, in the deepest recesses of his mind, the memory of the horrific sounds he heard that night echoing through the Mississippi woods.
Willie Louis recalls hearing Emmett Till tortured, "I could hear this beating and I could hear this beating. I could hear this crying and beating...and I'm saying to myself....they beating somebody up there."
Former Greenville Mississippi sharecropper, Willie Louis, didn't think of himself as a hero. But, with the news of his death in a Chicago suburb at age seventy six on Wednesday, we are reminded how the most ordinary men are capable of rising to extraordinary heights of courage. In 1955, months after the brutal torture and slaying of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, then Willie Reed, was unexpectedly approached by a group of men as he related in an interview years later for Public Broadcasting.
"I was in the cotton field. I was picking cotton and I looked across the field. It must have been about seven or eight people coming across the field," says Willie Louis.
The men were members of the prosecution team trying to convict Till's accused murderers Roy Bryant and J.W.Milan. It was just two days into the trial and the prosecution had produced few witnesses brave enough to come forward to testify. They had received the help of visiting black newspaper reporters, including the late Memphis photojournalist Ernest Withers, who were combing plantations in the dark of the night to plead with anyone to talk. Willie Louis, who'd had access to the Milan ranch told them he couldn't live with himself if he DIDN'T tell them what he saw hours after Till's kidnapping from his Uncle Mose farm.
"Milam came out and said did you here anything? I saw he had khaki pants on. And a green island shirt and a 45 (gun) on his side. So, I said, Nah, I said. I ain't heard anything. I ain't heard anything."
Days after recounting his story to the prosecution, a jittery Louis took the stand before an all-white jury, a grim-faced audience and the accused killers feet in front of him.
Willie Louis said, "Then you look at all these white folks and everybody looking at you and they got they frowns on they face and everything."
Immediately after his testimony, Louis was whisked out of the courtroom to catch a train for Chicago...never returning to Mississippi. Shortly after arriving he suffered a nervous breakdown due to his ordeal. He changed his name from Reed to Louis.
He kept his experience secret until he was persuaded to tell his story again on the Till television documentary. He was described by a friend on Wednesday as an "unsung civil rights hero."
We want to know what you think. Do you think the Emmett Till case and the Trayvon
Martin case is comparable in importance to the civil rights movement?
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