Civil RightsHistory

Willie Louis

Willie Louis (also known as Willie Reed) was born on September 13, 1937, in Greenwood, Mississippi, to sharecropper parents. As a young man, he worked on plantations in Mississippi, and in August 1955, he was working on a plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was visiting his great-uncle, Moses Wright. On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till was abducted from his great-uncle’s home by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, two white men who accused Till of whistling at Bryant’s wife. Three days later, Till’s body was found in the Tallahatchie River, mutilated and beaten beyond recognition.

Willie Reed (right) testified against the men accused of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. He changed his last name to Louis after fleeing to Chicago and hardly spoke of the trial.

Willie Louis was present in the plantation’s cotton gin when Bryant and Milam took Till from the house. He later testified that he saw Till in the back of Bryant and Milam’s truck, badly beaten and with a gun pointed at his head. Louis also testified that he heard Till screaming and crying in a nearby barn and that he saw the two men with a large metal fan, which they later used to weigh down Till’s body when they threw it into the river. After the trial, Willie Louis received death threats and was forced to leave Mississippi and change his name for his own safety. He moved to Chicago, where he worked in a factory and later became a civil rights activist.

American state witness Willie Reed (right, 1937-2013), who saw Emmett Till after he was taken from his home, sits with an unspecified man during the trial of those accused of the murder of Till, in Sumner, Mississippi, in September 1955. Sumner was where Black teenager Till was kidnapped and murdered after he was alleged to have whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.

In the 1980s, Willie Louis returned to Mississippi and lived in the same house where he had lived in 1955. He became an advocate for civil rights and worked to ensure that the memory of Emmett Till and the struggle for racial justice in Mississippi were not forgotten. He spoke publicly about his experiences during the Till trial, and his bravery in testifying against Till’s murderers was widely recognized as an important moment in the Civil Rights Movement.


Willie Louis passed away on July 18, 2013, in Oak Lawn, Illinois, at the age of 75. He was remembered as a courageous witness who helped to bring justice for Emmett Till, and as a dedicated civil rights activist who fought tirelessly for racial equality and social justice throughout his life.

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