ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We learned today of the death of a man who was not well known, but who played a remarkable role in civil rights history. In 1955, Willie Louis testified in a Mississippi court against the white men accused of kidnapping and murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till. Louis had seen them drive by and heard them beating Till.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this remembrance, and a warning, it includes some offensive racial language.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In August 1955, although Emancipation had occurred almost a hundred years earlier, much of the Deep South remained unchanged. The murder of young Emmett Till, accused of whistling at a white shopkeeper's wife, horrified America. Ordinarily, whites weren't prosecuted for killing blacks in segregated Mississippi. But the Till murder so shocked the nation, it forced the state into trying shopkeeper Roy Bryant and his stepbrother, J.W. Milam. And the state allowed a first, a surprise black witness Willie Louis, who was then known as Willie Reed.

GEORGE CURRY: At that time, it was virtually unheard of for a black person to testify against a white, particularly if that person grew up as a sharecropper, depended on whites for his livelihood.

BATES: George Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Association's wire service, which provides news to the nation's black newspapers. He's also finishing a book on the Till case. Curry says immediately after Till's murder, local black leaders worked together to spirit Willie Reed away to Chicago. They knew his life was in danger. Reed had seen a group of white men in a pickup truck's cab, with their black employees and a cowering boy on the bed of the pickup.

By the time the trial started, in September, Reed was in Chicago but he agreed to return to Mississippi to testify at the trial. George Curry says the courage that took was unimaginable.

CURRY: Especially having escaped Mississippi, knowing that the risk involved, and then to voluntarily come back and stand up and testify and point out J.W. Milam in that courtroom was phenomenal.

BATES: The atmosphere in the courtroom was tense. About a half-dozen members of the black press came to record the proceedings. Simeon Booker covered the trial for Jet Magazine. He recalls how the black reporters were greeted in an oral history for Black Books and Reviews.

SIMEON BOOKER: I remember Sheriff Strider, who came in the courtroom every morning: Hello, niggers.

BATES: Willie Reed identified Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, as Till's assailants in open court. Sixty-seven minutes later, an all-white jury acquitted both men, a virtually guaranteed outcome that made Reed's testimony all the more courageous.

Reed swiftly returned to Chicago and changed his name to Willie Louis. He worked as a hospital orderly and hardly ever spoke of the trial. His wife, Julia, said she'd been married to him for seven or eight years before he told her. The Mississippi trial left him with terrible nightmares. Yet, he told a CBS reporter, he felt he had to testify. It was, he said, the right thing to do.

Willie Louis died in the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn on July 18th. He was 76 years old.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Karen reports for NPR's Code Switch Team, which covers race, ethnicity and culture.

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