Key witness to 1955 Emmett Till murder dies at 76

Emmett Till in August 1955 file photo

A key witness to a 1955 fatal beating in Mississippi that helped spark the civil rights moment has died, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

Willie Louis was 76 when he passed away in a Chicago-area hospital last week, the newspaper says.

Louis, who was black, heard Emmett Till scream as Till, who was also black, was viciously beaten. Louis then testified in court against two white men charged in the case "despite the danger his testimony posed in the segregated South," the Sun-Times notes.

The murder and acquittal helped ignite the civil rights movement, the Sun-Times observes.

Louis, a Greenwood, Miss. native, was known as Willie Reed before moving to Chicago after the historic trial in Mississippi.

"What stood out, and what stands out to me about Willie the most, is his courage," Till's cousin, the Rev. Wheeler Parker, 74, who had traveled to Mississippi with Till, recalled for the Sun-Times. "He was nothing but a godsend."

Mike Small, a teacher who has studied the landmark case, told the newspaper Louis was an "unsung civil rights" hero.

Till was 14 when he was murdered after whistling at a white woman outside a grocery store in Mississippi. He was kidnapped and taken to a tool shed.

It was near there that Louis, then an 18-year-old sharecropper, saw the boy in a truck with several other men. Louis heard a beating coming from inside the shed. The truck had been parked in front of the shed, the Sun-Times says.

Louis told the CBS News broadcast "60 Minutes" almost a decade ago that, "I heard this screaming, beating, screaming and beating. And I said to myself, 'Milam and them beating somebody in the barn.' I could hear the beating. I mean, I could hear the licks."

According to Reed and another witness, four white men came out of the barn, including J.W. Milam.

Milam walked right up to Reed, carrying a .45-caliber pistol.

"He (Milam) asked and said, 'Listen, did you all hear anything?' I said, 'No, I haven't heard anything,'" Reed told "60 Minutes." "Somebody was being beaten. But then, you see Milam come, like I said, with khaki pants on and a green shirt, and a .45 on his side. Then he asks you, what you gonna say? 'I didn't hear anything.'"

But Louis went on to be a key witness in the trial in which an all-white jury acquitted Milam and co-defendant Roy Bryant.

Fearing for his life after testifying against Milam and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, Reed was smuggled out of Mississippi. He moved to Chicago, where he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized.

He also changed his name, seeking anonymity.

Why did he decide to speak out to "60 Minutes"?

"I couldn't have walked away from that like that," he replied. "Because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather," Reed told the broadcast. "And they killed him. That's not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, then I knew that I couldn't say no."