In his memoir, “Simeon’s Story,” Simeon Wright recalled the testimony of Willie Reed during the trial of the two men who abducted and killed Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boya from Chicago who went to Mississippi in 1955 to visit his relatives, including Wright, his cousin.
“An 18-year-old Black man Willie Reed said that he had heard screams coming from a barn on a plantation managed by J.W. Milam’s brother Leslie,” Wright wrote. “Then, Reed said, he was accosted by J.W. Milam, who asked him if he had heard or seen anything. He had enough sense not to let on at the time how much he had witnessed.”
Reed was the last witness in the case for the prosecution, and despite his courageous testimony, the two men, Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, were acquitted.
Immediately after the trial, Reed, along with members of Till’s family, were spirited out of Mississippi and settled in Chicago. Reed changed his last name to Louis. On July 18, he died in Oak Lawn, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. He was 76.
During the trial, Reed said he had heard screams coming from the barn. He was on his way to the store when “he had seen a green and white truck pass him, with four white men in the cab and three Black men in the back, one of them sitting down in the truck bed. Reed testified that the seated person resembled the picture of Emmett Till that he later saw in the paper,” Wright recounted in his book.
That picture of Till was also accompanied by one in which his face was so savagely disfigured that it was embedded in the minds of many Americans, including a young Keith Beauchamp, who later completed an award-winning documentary titled, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.”
The film was among two to give Reed a platform to tell his version of what happened on that fateful morning, though Wright’s memories of the abduction are equally important because he slept in the bed next to Till when the two white men entered their home and kidnapped Till. The event that provoked Milam and Bryant to abduct and later kill Till emanated from an encounter three days earlier when Till, Wright and a few other friends were in Money and patronized a store owned by the Bryants.
According to Wright, Till, whom the family called “Bobo,” wolf-whistled at Carolyn Bryant, Roy’s wife, when she came out of the store to fetch a gun from a car. This recollection by Wright dispelled all the rumors about whether Till actually whistled at the woman.
Many years later, Milam and Bryant—both now deceased—confessed to killing Till in a story published in Look magazine. They were paid $4,000 by author William Bradford Huie.
In an interview for “60 Minutes” in 2004, Reed said, “I couldn’t have walked away from that,” speaking of his decision to testify. “Emmett was 14, probably had never been to Mississippi in his life, and he came to visit his grandfather and they killed him. I mean, that’s not right.” Actually, Mose Wright, Simeon’s father, was Till’s great uncle and was no less brave during his testimony during the trial as he pointed out the men who had taken Till that morning.
Willie Reed Louis was born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1937, and, as a youth, lived with his grandfather in Drew. He worked in the fields picking cotton and received little formal education. Though he was 18 at the time of the trial, he was only in the ninth grade.