By: Dave Tell
In 1955, this site was home to the Holiday Inn Motor Hotel, “Your host in the heart of the Delta.” Every room had a color TV.
On October 23, 1955, freelance journalist William Bradford Huie returned to his room in this hotel and dashed off an exuberant letter to LOOK Magazine Editor Daniel Mich. The Emmett Till murder was nearly two months in the past, but Huie had just arrived in the Delta, determined to squeeze one more story out of the murder and the trial. He had spent the day in Sumner in the law offices of Breland & Whitten. Just a month earlier J. J. Breland and John Whitten had successfully defended Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who had been indicted for the murder of Emmett Till. Huie’s letter to Mich read as follows:
I have just returned from Sumner where I spent an almost unbelievable day in Whitten’s office – with Bryant and Milam. We have reached a verbal agreement on all points; and they have told me the story of the abduction and murder. This was really amazing, for it was the first time they have told this story of the abduction and murder. Not one of their lawyers had heard it. . . . Perhaps I am too close to appraise it – but I can’t see how it can miss being one the most sensational stories ever published.
For five consecutive evenings, Huie met with the killers and their lawyers in Sumner before returning each night to this hotel. In these meetings, Huie claimed, the killers told him the story, in their own words, of how and why they murdered Emmett Till. Why did they tell their story to a freelance journalist? He promised them twenty percent of the royalties and a $3,150 advance. In addition, Huie provided the law offices of Breland & Whitten—the practice that had defended the killers and then arranged Huie’s “secret sessions” with them—ten percent of royalties and a $1,269 down payment.
Huie’s account of the murder was titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi” and was published in the January 24, 1956 issue of LOOK Magazine. As he promised his editor, it was one of the most sensational stories ever published. It put the murder of Emmett Till back on the front pages of newspapers across the country. For Huie’s account was not simply one more story about the death of Emmett Till—by January of 1956 there were no shortage of these. The “Shocking Story” told the story of the murder in the voice of J. W. Milam. It seemed like it was a confession.
Because it told the story in Milam’s words, people have naturally assumed that Huie told a true story. More than any other story, Huie’s “Shocking Story” has controlled the memory of Till’s murder. As one scholar put it, “No other account of the case has had such a far-ranging influence on other retellings of the Emmett Till story.”
Unfortunately, Huie’s story is not a true story. Before LOOK would publish a word, Huie was obligated to provide “consent and release” forms from every person whom he accused of being involved in the murder. Although he was aware that there were at least four people involved in the murder, the “Shocking Story” caps the murder party at two: J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant. Why? Milam and Bryant had already been tried and acquitted in a court of law and could not be tried again. The remaining accomplices enjoyed no such protections and thus refused to sign consent and release forms. For this reason, it seems that Huie wrote a story that he knew to be false, put it in the words of J. W. Milam as if it was a confession, and thereby controlled the memory of Emmett Till for nearly 50 years.
In 2006, the FBI proved that the murder could not possibly have happened as Huie said it did. In Huie’s version, Milam and Bryant drove Till as far west as the Mississippi River before returning to Tallahatchie County to torture him, murder him, and toss his body in the river. The FBI demonstrated that the murderers could simply not cover that many miles in the time they had. Moreover, the LOOK account completely leaves out the eyewitness testimony of Willie Reed, Add Reed, and Amanda Bradley.