George Floyd and Emmett Till had many things in common, but two similarities rise to the top. They were both killed by white men who believed they had power over Black bodies. And they both called for help from their mothers just before they died, Floyd on a Minneapolis street in May 2020, Till in a Mississippi barn in August 1955.
Willie Louis heard those cries that summer morning in 1955, and like the witnesses to Floyd’s death, he spoke up about the unjust death.
This week’s Poetry Moment recalls the courage of Willie Louis in a poem by Joseph Ross, “When Your Word Is a Match.” On Oct. 2, Ross will read from his new collection of poetry, Raising King, based on the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The online event, HoCoPoLitSo’s annual Lucille Clifton Reading, commemorates the beloved poet and our artistic advisor, Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010.
The event, entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” continues a recurring theme in Ross’s poetry, the country’s history of racial injustice and the struggle against that injustice. Near the beginning of his poetry career, Ross won the Enoch Pratt/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
In doing research for that poem, he came across the story of Willie Louis, a young Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who was a witness in the trial of two white men accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Emmett Till.
“I was just so moved by the decision an ordinary person made. He wasn’t an activist or a hero in some way, he wasn’t a policy-maker,” Ross tells The Writing Life host, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Miller will introduce Ross at the Oct. 2 event.
In 1955 Louis was an 18-year-old sharecropper walking down a blazing Mississippi road on a summer morning, when he saw Emmett Till in the back of a green Chevrolet pickup truck. White men, related to the woman who said Emmett flirted with and whistled at her, were in the cab of the truck. Louis then saw the same truck parked outside a barn, and heard someone inside being hit, and calling for his mother to save him.
When a white man with a pistol walked out of the barn for a drink from the well, he asked Louis if he had seen anything. Louis said, “No sir.”
But later in 1955, in a Mississippi courthouse, Louis testified against the men who had kidnapped Till. Despite Louis’ testimony at two trials, the white men were acquitted of murder, and later kidnapping. In 1956, in an interview with Look Magazine, the men admitted they had shot Emmett, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weight him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
After having to hide until the trial, News reports said Louis spoke so softly at the trial that he was barely able to be heard. But when asked, he stood and pointed to the men he saw in the truck and outside the barn. The audience in the courtroom gasped when he did.
Black people just did not testify against white people at that time, in that place. Louis had to be convinced by civil rights workers to testify, and kept hidden until the trial to keep him safe. The evidence of what could happen to him was Emmett’s body at his Chicago funeral, a coffin that Till’s mother Mamie insisted stay open so that the world could see what the men did to her son.
According to The Washington Post, Wheeler Parker, one of Till’s relatives who was sleeping in the house when Emmett was kidnapped, said he assumed that Louis had been lynched after his testimony. Instead, Louis fled Mississippi to Chicago, changed his name, and stayed under police protection, living out his life quietly as a hospital orderly.
The Post quoted Parker as saying, “You have to live those times to understand what it was like, the pure terror. His stepping forward, his testifying, it was just a very courageous act on his part. It’s beyond words for me to explain.”
Research goes into many of Ross’s poems. The horrors of Till’s murder, the institutionalized racism that allowed his killers to go free, the agonizing injustice of the crime and the trial could have overpowered any poem written about the event.
“I felt so strongly about what he had to go through, but doing the research controls that a little bit, and lets the poem say it in a way that’s not just shrieking or screaming,” Ross explains in the episode of The Writing Life from which this video is excerpted. “The research provides a lane for the passion to go through, so it’s not an explosion of passion, which is sort of uncontrolled and not moderated.”
Louis lived out his life in secrecy and relative obscurity. In an interview in 2003, he told 60 Minutes, “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, 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.”
Speak softly. Don’t say no. Scream. Write a poem.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer