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Thursday, July 25, 2013

May we all be as brave as Willie Louis

by Mike Ely
Emmett Till lay dead. He was so mutilated and brutalized that his open casket stirred an national outrage among Black people and anyone with a conscience. Emmett had been singled out by a  self-appointed death squad of small town white men because he had (supposedly) said something to (or whistled at or touched or who knows?)  the white woman working in that dusty grocery store in Drew, Mississippi.
They showed up in the dark of the night at the house where 14-year-old Emmett was staying -- the home of his great uncle.  They took Emmett from his kin and then slowly tortured him to death. they finished by shooting him in the head, and tying a cotton gin fan around his neck, and dumping him in the nearby river -- a favorite disposal in such killings.
[right: Emmett Till full of life, and then in the open casket requested by his mother so the whole world could see.]

No white man had ever been convicted in Mississippi of killing a Black person. Ever.
When national outrage, and the photos of Emmett's face, forced Mississippi to hold a trial, the results were almost certain: The  racist killers would be released. (Just as George Zimmerman was released.)
Willie Louis stands up
Emmett Till had been a boy from Chicago, he had not understood what he faced.
But Willie Louis had lived his whole short life in those Mississippi plantation lands. And he knew exactly where he was.
But despite all that, Willie Louis, then 18 with hands already hardened from picking cotton, walked through a crowd of glowering  Klansmen into that courthouse in September 1955. Willie Louis  rose to testify that he had seen the pickup truck drive by -- with Emmett Till held in the back -- and that he had then heard the "licks like somebody was whipping somebody" coming from the plantation's barn. 
He later said: 
""I heard this screaming, beating, screaming and beating. And I said to myself, I said, 'You know, man, they're beating somebody in the barn.'"
At that moment Milam step out with a pistol and confront him.
“Did you hear anything?” Milam had said.
“No, sir, I didn’t,” Willie replied that day.
But he had heard it of course. And more, he dared state it in public, with all the hateful eyes of the white audience, the white defendants, the white judge and the white jurors boring into him.
He looked in the face of those killers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam there in the courtroom-- and he defied all the violent power that determined life and death for a Black man in Mississippi in 1955.
[right: Willie Louis dressed for court.]
Four days later, of course, that all-white jury acquitted those heartless killers, and they walked out with that familiar lynchmob sneer of power. The world saw this, and understood what it meant. And we only remember their names today because we honor Emmett Till.
Willie Louis knew what his act meant. It meant the Klan would hunt him like an animal, seize him, torture him relentlessly and then kill him too -- if they could.
He had to run that day, change his name, go underground, and never go back. That day Willie Reed became Willie Louis. Even when he married, it took him eight years to tell Juliet Louis about his birth name and his great moment of courage. 
Willie Louis stood up.
He looked death in the face. He dared to speak the truth even though he knew (and everyone knew) that the authorities would deny it and they would kill him for it.
He gave up everything he had known in that small Mississippi town, and cast his very life upon the waters.
Willie Louis died last week in Oak Lawn, Illinois -- just outside Chicago. He was 76.
May we all find the courage that Willie Louis had.
May we all dare to rise up against seemingly unbeatable power and violence.
May each of us risk all to speak truth and defy injustice.
Willie Louis, live like him.
Dare to struggle, dare to win.
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