The Murder of Emmett Till

The 49-year-old story of the crime and how it came to be told.

Till: murdered

Despite initial protests from Emmett Till’s family, the Department of Justice earlier this month exhumed the remains of the black 14-year-old murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. At the time of the 1955 murder, Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, made certain the case file crossed the desks of both President Dwight D. Eisenhower and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. It met with calculated indifference. Now, however, the Till case is one of a pair of decades-old civil rights crimes in which federal and state prosecutors are seeking a measure of justice. Eighty-year-old Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter June 21 for his role in the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Miss. Prosecutors in that case and in the Till investigation are encouraged by convictions in the last decade for the 1963 murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., the same year.

The Justice Department opened the Till investigation chiefly because of the perseverance (until her death in 2003) of Till-Mobley, and the attention drawn to the case by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp’s 2004 documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till. The film delved into rumors that as many as 10 people, black and white, were involved in the crime. Yet the story of Till’s murder has never really been untold—key elements were revealed 49 years ago by William Bradford Huie, a maverick Alabama journalist, in an article in Look magazine.

Milam/Bryant: acquitted

Huie talked to Roy Bryant, the husband of the woman Till offended, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, soon after they’d been acquitted of the murder by an all-white jury. Their lawyer, J.J. Breland, accepted this offer from Huie: $3,000 for his clients and $1,000 to Breland’s firm in exchange for the story of Till’s kidnapping, beating, and murder. It’s easy to understand why Bryant and Milam talked: They were immune from further prosecution for murder, and they needed the money. But why would Breland, a respected member of the Mississippi establishment, agree to expose the ugly story of this crime? And why did Huie, a Southerner himself, want to tell it?

Emmett Till came to the Delta from his home in Chicago to visit relatives in August 1955. In tumbledown Money, Miss., he had an unfortunate exchange with 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, who was minding the store where she and her husband sold sundries to black sharecroppers. The details of the encounter are debated. Whatever happened, Carolyn Bryant did not tell her husband, Roy, about it. But others did. Soon after, the sleeping teenager was dragged from his uncle’s cotton-field house. Sheriff’s deputies hauled Till’s mangled and bloated corpse out of the Tallahatchie River three days later. Local authorities covered Till’s body with lime, nailed his coffin shut, and tried for a quick, local funeral. Till’s mother insisted her son’s body be returned to Chicago for burial. Thousands filed by the open coffin, and Jet magazine published images of Till’s grotesque corpse, sealing his place in the firmament of the civil rights movement.

William Bradford Huie arrived in Mississippi that October. At 45, Huie was a Southern Zelig. Huie was born in the town of Hartselle, Ala., and his exploits as a young reporter at the Birmingham Post got him hired in 1941 at the American Mercury, an iconoclastic monthly with the irreverence and wit of its founder, H.L. Mencken. When Huie became the Mercury’s editor and publisher, after writing several best-sellers, his hires included William F. Buckley, Jr., then 26.

Huie is best remembered, however, as a civil rights reporter. His first article for the Mercury, about the electrocution of a black youth wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Alabama, infuriated the white South. He came to the Till case fresh from being arrested for contempt of court in Florida, where a local judge tried to block his investigation into the story of Ruby McCollum, a black woman convicted of murdering her lover, a prominent white physician. Huie also figured prominently in the investigations of the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman—he reportedly told the FBI where the three civil rights workers were buried—and of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In both cases, his tactic of paying informants to talk caused him trouble. But his books (the one about Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman has an introduction by MLK) are classic accounts of the crimes.

But in 1955, Huie gained entrance to Breland’s office as a sixth-generation Alabamian—a member of the lodge, from the lawyer’s point of view. Huie told Breland he would not write his article about Milam and Bryant as a confession. He would simply state facts, including quotes, without saying how he came to know them. In order to protect themselves from their Mississippi neighbors and from being indicted for crimes for which they’d not yet been tried, the brothers would publicly continue to maintain their innocence. But they would sign a release that protected Huie from a libel suit. In addition to the cash payments, Milam, Bryant, and Breland’s firm would each receive a significant percentage of future profits from any book or film that came out of Huie’s article.

Curiously, Huie let Breland know that he planned to shame Mississippi. He had initially approached NAACP head Roy Wilkins with the idea for the story, hoping that Wilkins would fund the proposed payoff so Huie could write a book that would “lay bare every facet” of Mississippi’s battle over race. When Wilkins turned him down, Huie struck a deal with Look. In a letter to Dan Mich, the magazine’s managing editor, Huie recounted that he’d told Breland, “I don’t like the hypocrisy in this case. I intend to write, step by step, hour by hour, the story of the abduction, torture, murder, and disposal of the body. I want to present the trial as the machinery for community approbation.”

Breland, then 67, was a Princeton graduate and a leader in the Mississippi Citizens Council, a Main Street version of the Ku Klux Klan formed in the wake of Brownv. Board of Education. Breland had originally been reluctant to take on Milam and Bryant’s defense. But he came to see the prosecution as an affront against Mississippi, another assault like Black Monday, as the day of the Brown ruling on desegregation was known across the South. By agreeing to Huie’s interview request, Breland was putting the nation on notice: The ruling class in Mississippi intended to see Brown repealed and was willing to use poor whites like Milam and Bryant to fight a war to that end.

Breland agreed to Huie’s terms. “They’re peckerwoods,” he said of Milam and Bryant, according to accounts of the conversation in Huie’s private correspondence. “But, hell, we’ve got to have our Milams to fight our wars and keep our niggahs in line … there ain’t gonna be no integration … there ain’t gonna be no nigger votin’. And the sooner everybody in this country realizes it the better. If any more pressure is put on us, the Tallahatchie won’t hold all the niggers that’ll be thrown into it.”

Breland arranged a week of clandestine, nighttime meetings between Huie, Milam, and Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Frank Dean, Look’s senior counsel, brought the money for the payoffs to Mississippi in a satchel. In a haze of cigarette smoke and profane justification, the brothers told their story. “Two long sessions with these bully-boys have been shattering,” Huie wrote to Mich. “It’s an amazing, indefensible murder—and much of our story will be in the cool, factual manner in which we let the facts indict the community. It will shake people in Mississippi.”

Huie’s “Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” was published in January 1956. The article told the story of Till’s murder from Milam and Bryant’s point of view—a brutal tale of a beating that ended on the bank of the Tallahatchie River with a gun shot to the side of the head. The men portrayed Till as a sexually precocious youth who boasted of “having white women.” Milam gave voice to the backed-in-a-corner rage of Southern white resistance. “What else could we do?” he said. “I like niggers—in their place—I know how to work ‘em. But … they ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country, and we got some rights. … I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ‘em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I’m going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’ “

Huie concluded his article by indicting Mississippi for failing to convict Milam and Bryant or condemn their actions. His piece caused a firestorm. Charles Diggs, a black congressman from Michigan, read it into the Congressional Record. The NAACP decried the article in public and promoted it in private. The Southern press called it “the false imaginings of a sensationalist.” And Reader’s Digest put it on 10 million coffee tables.

A half-century later, Huie’s article leaves the newly opened investigation of Till’s murder without an obvious, breathing villain. Edgar Ray Killen, like the killers of Medgar Evers and the bombers of the Birmingham church, deserves to be brought to trial, however belatedly. But the Till case is different. J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant died many years ago. So far, two surviving possible participants have emerged in the investigation: Henry Lee Loggins, 81, one of three African-Americans who worked for Milam and reportedly helped transport Till, witnessed his torment, and cleaned up the gore; and Carolyn Bryant Donham, 71, who may have waited in the car during the kidnapping. But if prosecutors decide to indict Loggins or Donham, will a Mississippi jury punish a field hand and a Southern wife who did as they were told—and would have felt they had no other choice?

William Bradford Huie’s 1956 article won’t help answer the lingering questions about who, if anyone, helped Milam and Bryant kill Emmett Till. His deal with the two men bound him to frame the story as they told it. Huie wrote privately of the risks and compromises of his agreement; he knew he would be criticized. But he got what he was after: an indictment of his own culture and the keepers of its flame.