By: Dave Tell
Known today as Pappy’s Country Store and Eat Place, this structure is the former Progressive Ginning Company. Historically speaking, it has no connection to Till’s murder. Not only was Emmett Till never taken to this cotton gin, he was never in Bolivar County.
Historical facts notwithstanding, the Progressive Ginning Company has played a large role in Till’s memory. Indeed, from January of 1956 through the early twenty-first century, most accounts of Till’s murder included the Progressive Ginning Company. Why? Because the so-called “confession” to the murder of Emmett Till published in LOOK Magazine included the gin.
Emmett Till was killed on August 28, 1955. The trial lasted from September 19 to September 23, 1955. Shortly after the trial concluded, in October of 1955, free-lance journalist William Bradford Huie made his way to the Mississippi Delta. He went directly to the law offices of Breland & Whitten and promised their just-acquitted clients $3,150 in exchange for a first-hand story of Till’s murder. Titled “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” Huie’s account was published in the January 24, 1956 issue of LOOK.
The “Shocking Story” is a powerful piece of journalism that rocked America. It told the story of the murder with long quotations from J. W. Milam. Indeed, as the climax of the story approaches, Huie’s narration disappears completely and the story telling is taken over by Milam. Although the byline listed William Bradford Huie as the author, the “Shocking Story” was widely understood as the confession of J. W. Milam. The evidence on this point is overwhelming: celebrities such as Bob Dylan, high-profile writers and activists such as John Edgar Wideman and Stokely Carmichael, and respected scholars such as Stephen Whitaker, David Beito, Christine Harold, and Kevin DeLuca—all have called Huie’s “Shocking Story” a confession.
Because it was received as if it was a confession, Huie’s “Shocking Story” has dominated the memory of Emmett Till. 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.”
But why the Progressive Ginning Company? The gin is over 50 miles from Money, where Till was kidnapped and from Tallahatchie County, where his body was thought to be recovered. Why put this site on the itinerary of Till’s murder?
William Bradford Huie faced a very basic legal problem. LOOK editor Daniel Mich refused to publish any accusations of murder without signed legal consent forms from the accused. Without such forms, LOOK would be vulnerable to lawsuits premised on libel and defamation. Unsurprisingly, he could only obtain such legal consent from the two men who had already been tried and were no longer in legal jeopardy: J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, in other words. For this reason, and despite the fact that Huie confided to Mich that four people were involved in the murder, his published version included only two killers—the two that would sign releases.
One of the men Huie left out of the story was J. W.’s brother Leslie Milam. Leslie operated the Sturdivant Plantation in Sunflower County and it was his barn into which Till was taken and beaten. Willie Reed, Frank Young, Add Reed, Mandy Bradley and Walter Billingsly all placed Till at the Sturdivant Planation. And they all heard the screams emanating from the barn.
But William Bradford Huie couldn’t publish that story. To do so would implicate Leslie Milam—a murderer from whom he could not secure a consent and release form. So he invented a fictional itinerary of Till’s murder. Huie has the murderers go as far west as the Mississippi River, supposedly looking for a bluff off of which to throw Emmett Till. When they couldn’t find the bluff, they supposedly stopped here, at the Progressive Ginning Company, on their way back to Milam’s home in Glendora. Here, Huie claimed, Bryant and Milam stole the 74-lb. gin fan which they used to weigh down Till’s body when they threw it in the river.
None of this, however, is true. Roy Bryant admitted as much in a 1985 tape-recorded interview. In all likelihood, the gin fan came from the Glendora Gin, adjacent to J. W. Milam’s home and much closer to the Tallahatchie River. But Milam would have been hesitant to mention the Glendora Gin—his good friend Elmer Kimbell worked there and he wouldn’t want to implicate his friend (who was, in truth, most likely involved in the murder).
The Progressive Ginning Company, then, stands as a monument. Not so much a monument to Till’s murder, but to the cover-up that protected the people involved in the murder. The trial declared J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant innocent. Huie completed the injustice by selling a version of the murder in which no one except two men who no longer had anything to lose were guilty. It is no wonder that J. W. Milam called it the “Mississippi version” of the story.