By: Davis Houck
When John William (J.W.) Milam returned from Europe as a highly decorated World War II veteran, he settled in Glendora, content to run a small grocery store in town.
On December 11, 1949, he married Juanita Thompson from Greenville; the couple would have two sons, Horace and Harvey. The Milam grocery, though, burned down in 1954 and Milam took to running cotton picking machines on plantations in and around the Delta.
After he and his half-brother, Roy Bryant, were declared not guilty in the Emmett Till murder trial on September 23, and after a Leflore County grand jury refused to indict them for kidnapping on November 7, they agreed to be interviewed by William Bradford Huie—for a fee of $3,150; they also signed an agreement that they would not sue the journalist, whose story, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” would run in the January 24, 1956 issue of LOOK Magazine.
In the so-called LOOk “confession,” Milam does most of the talking, claiming that a belligerent Emmett Till was so full of the “poison” of interracial social equality that he simply had to be killed so that other northern blacks could be “put on notice.” We know today thanks to the investigative work of Keith Beauchamp and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Huie’s “shocking story” was just that—a piece of fiction dictated to him by Milam and Bryant in order to throw the reporter off the trail. Nowhere in Huie’s account, for example, is Willie Reed’s dramatic courtroom eyewitness testimony even mentioned. Instead of Milam and Bryant acting on their own, between 8-14 men were likely involved, including several black field hands who worked for Milam.
Milam would have Huie’s readers believe that Emmett Till was taken to a tool shed behind his house here in Glendora where the two men pistol-whipped the supposedly fearless 14-year-old. Nothing of the sort happened as Till was driven to the Sturdivant Plantation managed by Milam’s brother, Leslie, near Drew, and likely killed in a small seed barn after a brutal beating. The LOOk Magazine confession thus functions as a cover for what really happened on the morning of August 28, key details of which we’ll likely never know.