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Emmett Till Case: Willie Louis, key witness in the 1955 murder of teen in Miss., dies at 76, report says

Emmett Till seen in August 1955 image
AP
An undated black-and-white file photo of Emmett Till, whose weighted down body was found in the Tallahatchie River near the Delta community of Money, Miss., Aug. 31, 1955.
AP

(CBS/AP) CHICAGO - A key witness to the 1955 deadly beating of a black teen in Mississippi, a case that opened nation's eyes to the discrimination African Americans faced in the 50's, has died of intestinal bleeding, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Willie Louis, a Chicago resident, was 76 when he passed away from intestinal bleeding on July 18th, the newspaper reports.

After the trial in the murder of Emmett Till, Louis fled to Chicago in fear for his life, changed his name and slipped out of the public eye for nearly 50 years, according to the paper.

Louis was born in Greenwood, Miss. His wife, Juliet Louis, reportedly said he lived with his grandparents who worked as sharecroppers.

Mike Smalls, a teacher who has studied the landmark case, has told the Chicago Sun-Times that Louis was "one of the unsung civil rights heroes."

On August 28th, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting Mississippi from Chicago; he was murdered after allegedly whistling at a white woman. On that day, Louis, then known as Willie Reed, saw two white men in a truck driving two black males in the back.

His wife said he was standing with an older woman near a well and he heard a male screaming for his life inside the barn, the paper reports.

Later on the same day, when a white man allegedly approached Louis and asked him if he saw or heard anything, he replied "no", according to the Chicago Tribune.

The day after the incident, Louis found out Till's body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River and although Mr. Louis was advised not to say anything, his wife reportedly said, "He said he couldn't have lived with it; he had to tell them what he saw."

Louis agreed to testify in court but until the trial later started that year, a black local doctor hid him. Despite his testimony, the two white men accused of murder were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Juliet Louis said her husband suffered a nervous breakdown after the Emmett Till trial; being a witness and testifying in court took a toll on his heath and he was hospitalized, observes the paper.

She reportedly also said she didn't know he was a witness in the case until after eight years of marriage, and even then he wouldn't talk about it much.

Louis broke his silence when a journalist, Stanley Nelson, came to his home to ask him to help him on a research project about the murder, according to the Chicago Tribune. The research turned into a book and a documentary that aired on PBS.

Nearly a decade ago, in an interview with 60 Minutes, Louis was asked why he decided to speak out on the show and he replied, "I couldn't have walked away from that like that... because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather," he continued, "and they killed him. That's not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, I knew that I couldn't say no."

  • Iris Carreras

    Iris Carreras covers crime for CBSNews.com