The story that many Americans believe about the Emmett Till case is a pack of lies.
That’s because the 1956 Look magazine article on the killing — long regarded as a confession by the two white men acquitted in the case — was, in fact, a cover-up concocted by them and their lawyers to conceal others involved in Till’s brutal murder, experts say.
“To this day, the story most people believe about the murder of Emmett Till is the story first peddled by Look,” said Dave Tell, author of a book to be published in April, Remembering Emmett Till.
But a fresh look at the case by a band of Till experts, a new investigation by the FBI and the voices of witnesses refuting the myths around the case have begun to unravel these cords of deception for a new generation.
“It’s amazing how we have gotten this story wrong for so long,” said Keith Beauchamp, whose documentary, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, helped inspire the Justice Department to reopen the case in 2004.
For more than half a century, Beauchamp said, “we’ve made (William Bradford) Huie out to be this amazing journalist who runs to Mississippi” and gets two men who had just been acquitted of the murder, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, to talk and publishes their confession to the killing in Look magazine for $3,150.
Beauchamp believes Huie was more interested in making a movie than in digging deep for the truth in Till’s killing. The agreement the two killers signed gave Huie permission to depict them in a Hollywood film.
Huie happened to be on the movie set of The Revolt of Mamie Stover, an adaptation of one of his books, when he first heard about the Till trial.
His film on the Till murder never materialized, but that did little to keep a generation from believing the words he wrote in Look.
“A lot of the lies that people do believe about the Emmett Till case can ultimately be tracked back to the confession that was published in Look magazine in January 1956,” Tell said.
In July, the FBI’s reexamination of Till’s 1955 slaying became public. The reexamination took place in the wake of historian Timothy Tyson quoting Carolyn Bryant Donham as saying it wasn’t true when she testified that Till accosted her.
Her family denies she ever recanted, and Tyson admitted to the Clarion Ledger that he did not have the bombshell quote of her confession on any of the recordings from his two days of interviews with Donham.
Till loved life, ‘used to pay people to tell him jokes’
Mississippi native Wheeler Parker has long been upset about the lies told about Till, his cousin.
The two of them lived next door to each other in the Summit-Argo village in Illinois, just south of Chicago, where they would fish, play and ride their bicycles. “I was like a big brother to him,” he said.
In August 1955, the two of them traveled on the train to Mississippi, staying in Money with Parker’s grandfather, Moses Wright, and his family.
It was a vacation for the cousins, who made plans for their fun.
“Emmett was a prankster,” he recalled. “He never had a dull day in his life. He enjoyed life to the fullest. He used to pay people to tell him jokes.”
On Aug. 24, 1955, the cousins traveled to Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Money, where they went inside to buy candy and the like. Till decided on bubble gum.
Parker and Wright’s late son, Simeon, have told the Clarion Ledger they never saw Till do anything to Donham — then Carolyn Bryant — inside the store.
Parker said when they emerged from the store, Till wolf-whistled at her. When someone said she had a gun, Parker said the cousins jumped into a car and sped away.
On Sept. 2, 1955, after her husband and his half-brother were indicted for murder in Till’s death, Donham spoke with defense lawyer Sidney Carlton about waiting on Till at the candy counter.
After selling him bubble gum, she reached out her hand to give him change. According to Carlton’s notes, she said Till grabbed her hand and asked her for a date, and when she pulled her hand away, he asked, “What’s the matter, baby, can’t you take it?”
She said he also said goodbye and whistled at her, according to Carlton’s notes.
Donham said that as soon as her husband, Bryant, returned home two days later at 4:30 in the morning, she told him what happened in the store with Till, according to Carlton’s notes.
But since then, she has repeatedly said someone else told Bryant first.
“I didn’t say anything, and one of the reasons I didn’t ever say anything more about it was because I was afraid that, what I was worried about was he’s gonna go find and beat him up,” she told FBI agent Dale Killinger.
Past investigations by civil rights leader T.R.M. Howard and author Devery Anderson each concluded Bryant learned of what happened at the store from someone other than his wife.
Donham’s family said she never wanted Till harmed and didn’t encourage any violence toward Till. “She was appalled (at his murder),” said her daughter-in-law, Marsha Bryant.
The night Till was abducted was ‘as dark as a thousand midnights’
During Till’s stay, he and his cousins picked cotton by day. On Saturday night — Aug. 27, 1955 — they traveled to the nearby town of Greenwood.
“We had a great time,” Parker said. “It was like the Fourth of July.”
It had been four days since they had been to Bryant’s Grocery, and it was after midnight by the time Parker and his cousins fell asleep in the early morning hours of Aug. 28.
Hours later, Parker said they awoke to the sound of men with guns saying, “We want to talk to the fat boy who did the talking.”
Believing he might be killed, he began to pray. “It was as dark as a thousand midnights,” Parker said. “I’m shaking like a leaf on the tree.”
His mind raced. “I thought of every wrong thing I had ever done,” he said. “When death is imminent, you forget about all the foolishness.”
He closed his eyes, waiting to be shot. “It was pure hell,” Parker said. “It was pure terror.”
When he opened his eyes, he realized the pair had passed by.
The men with guns took Till, announcing that they would bring him back if “he wasn’t the right one.”
When daylight came, Parker made his way to his uncle’s home and then back to Chicago. “I went to Emmett’s mother’s house,” he said. “The atmosphere was so somber.”
He recalled the fear that overwhelmed him that night. “At 3 o’clock in the morning, the safest place in the world should be your home,” Parker said. “But it wasn’t for us. It wasn’t for us.”
After Till’s abduction, the Leflore County sheriff picked up Bryant for questioning. He admitted abducting Till but claimed he released the 14-year-old unharmed.
Then Milam, Bryant’s half-brother, turned himself in, perhaps to keep an eye on Bryant. After Till’s battered body was found three days later, both were charged with murder.
In addition to those confessions, Moses Wright was able to identify Milam and Bryant as his great-nephew’s kidnappers.
“The defense had a real problem,” said Davis Houck, co-author of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Press.
What the defense decided to do became apparent a day before the trial began on Sept. 19, 1955. Defense lawyer Carlton announced to reporters that Donham would testify that Till “mauled” her “while making indecent proposals” — a far different story than what she had told defense lawyers a few weeks earlier.
The lawyer’s proclamations fit the defense plan, Houck said. “It might surprise people, but their main defense was justifiable homicide.”
Till’s mother feared coming to Mississippi for the trial
Before Till was killed, the slayings of many other African Americans went unprosecuted and unpunished in Mississippi.
Unlike the others, his cousin’s case didn’t go away, Parker said. “They were having a trial, accusing a white man of something.”
Milam couldn’t believe it, Parker said. “He believed he was protecting the Southern way of life. … He thought, ‘You all should be rewarding me.’”
In Chicago, Till’s mother, Mamie, kept her son’s casket open at his funeral so the world could see what had been done to him,
Now she was coming to Mississippi to testify.
As he sat inside the restored Tallahatchie County courtroom, Parker recalled that Mamie Till “was afraid of coming in here. She didn’t know if she’d be able to get in and out of the courtroom alive.”
He said that “was the atmosphere back then. You could be killed, and nothing would be done about it.”
With the jury out of the courtroom, Donham stepped to the witness stand wearing a black dress with a white collar and ribbon.
Mississippi newspapers described her as “the pretty 21-year-old mother of two children” who testified with “her dark eyes downcast, her voice little more than a whisper.”
“This n—– man came in the store, and he stopped at the candy case,” she testified.
When she held her right hand out for his money, “he caught my hand.” she testified.
“Like this?” Carlton asked, grabbing her hand.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Was that a strong grip or a light grip that he had when he held your hand?”
“A strong grip,” she said, adding that it was difficult to get loose.
“What did he say when he grabbed your hand?” the defense lawyer asked.
“How about a date, baby?” she replied.
“How did you get loose?” he asked, still holding her by hand.
“I just jerked it loose.”
Then she claimed he came behind the cash register, grabbing her by the hips with both hands. She demonstrated by putting the defense lawyer’s hands on her hips.
“What did he say?” Carlton asked.
“You needn’t be afraid of me,” she replied.
She testified that Till remarked that he had had sex with white women before.
After this, she said Till said goodbye and wolf-whistled at her.
“Was it something like this?” asked Carlton. He blew his own wolf-whistle, a sound that undoubtedly carried into the room where jurors were sitting.
The story that Donham told on the witness stand spread like wildfire across Mississippi, newspapers calling Till a “molester” who “tried obscenely to date her.”
When the judge ruled her testimony inadmissible, the defense shifted to Plan B, claiming the corpse recovered from the Tallahatchie River was not Till, Houck said.
After the body was recovered, then-Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider identified it as being Till and said it had only been in the river a few days.
But now, in front of a jury, the sheriff testified that the body had been in the river for “at least 10 days, if not 15,” and he couldn’t tell if the body was black or white.
In their closing arguments, defense lawyers accused civil rights organizations of throwing a “rotten, stinking corpse” in the river, hoping to “destroy the Southern way of life.”
Defense lawyer John Whitten told the all-white jury that he hoped “every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”
And free these men is what jurors did, after deliberating a little more than an hour. “We wouldn’t have taken so long,” one of them pointed out, but they had stopped deliberations to drink Cokes.
Seven years after the verdict, Florida State University student Stephen Whitaker interviewed all the jurors, who had reportedly been visited by members of the white Citizens’ Council during the trial to make sure they voted “the right way.”
All but one of the jurors believed the body pulled from the river was Till. (DNA tests in 2005 confirmed the body was indeed Till.)
All the jurors believed Milam and Bryant had killed Till, yet all of them voted to acquit.
The reason? “A Negro had insulted a white woman. Her husband would not be prosecuted for killing him.”
Moaning and pleas: ‘He knows Emmett Till is dead when he stops screaming’
Look published as fact that Till told the killers that he had had sex with white women.
In reality, Till had just turned 14 on July 25 and knew nothing about sex, Parker recalled.
Alvin Sykes, president of the Emmett Till Justice Campaign, said Huie’s depiction of Till as a “sexual predator” was a horrible lie.
Tell said the lies didn’t end there.
In an Oct. 17, 1955, letter, Huie wrote Look editor Dan Mich that there were four killers involved.
After Mich told him the only way he could print an article would be for each killer to sign a release that indemnified the magazine, Huie responded that he was now certain there were only two killers.
“What changed?” Tell asked. “When Huie was unable to get release forms from the others, the murder party shrank to two people.”
Those two were Bryant and Milam. Huie left out other possible candidates, including Leslie Milam, who gave a deathbed confession, and Elmer Kimbell, who killed Clinton Melton, a black gas station attendant, for putting too much gas in his car. (An all-white jury acquitted Kimbell.)
The story also left out the three black field hands in the back of the truck with Till.
“To this day,” Tell said, “90 percent of my students and probably 90 percent of the public believe that Emmett was killed by two people, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.”
By reducing the murder party to two, Huie faced an additional problem: why didn’t Till just hop out of the back of the truck?
To address this problem, Huie created another fiction, Tell said. “He said the reason Emmett Till didn’t run was he wasn’t scared.”
In the Look article, Till faces his torturers without flinching, calling them “bastards” and telling them he’s as good as they are and that he’s had sex with white women.
This makes no sense, Tell said. “Why would a 14-year-boy, who was hundreds of miles from home, who was kidnapped at gunpoint in the middle of the night, who was tortured until portions of his skull fell out, who was carted around in a pickup truck with two men guarding him, why would such a boy not be scared?”
Till’s mother recognized the ridiculousness of Huie’s story, saying, “Emmett was no superman and saying that he took all that beating without begging for mercy or that he kept talking back to them to the very end just isn’t true. They were only trying to justify why they did it.”
Despite her insights, Huie’s version has persisted, Tell said. “There was a newspaper article the other day talking about how Emmett Till faced his killers bravely. That just boggles the imagination.”
Sharecropper Willie Reed testified about the moaning and pleas he heard, Tell said. “He knows Emmett Till is dead when he stops screaming.”
Despite the lies, Huie still regarded as the expert on Emmett Till
Henry Lee Loggins and Levi “Too Tight” Collins were identified as two of the possible black men guarding Till in the back of the truck. According to defense lawyers, Sheriff Strider had both men jailed in another county to keep prosecutors from finding them.
Huie created the fiction of the two-man murder party, Tell said, to write Loggins and Collins out of the story.
Testimony made obvious that Till was beaten and killed inside the barn on the plantation that Leslie Milam managed in Sunflower County.
“The only reason that murderers had access to that barn was he was manager of the plantation,” Tell said.
In order to conceal Leslie Milam’s involvement, Huie moved the murder site “nearly 20 miles east, across the county line, to an abandoned river bank in Tallahatchie County,” Tell said. “To this day, people believe the murder happened in Tallahatchie County — all because Leslie Milam wouldn’t sign a release form.”
After Huie finished his draft of the Look article, he shared it with the defense lawyers and their clients, J.W. Milam and Roy and Carolyn Bryant.
Huie gave Roy Bryant and Milam $3,150 for the rights to depict them in books, movies or other literary works as Till’s murderers — an apparent advance on a share of profits he promised them. Their lawyers received $1,260 as part of a share.
Days after the Look article came out, news broke of a movie deal with Milam and the Bryants.
Huie began writing a book and screenplay, speaking with defense lawyers about shooting portions of the movie in Sumner and “particularly whether or not we will be able to use the Tallahatchie County Courthouse for the courthouse and courtroom sequences.”
He bragged in a letter to Basil Walters, executive editor of Knight Newspapers, that the Till story might make him $150,000.
“I am ‘hot’ in Hollywood now, with three ‘big’ sales this year,” he wrote. “This Mississippi story, with proper releases, is a good bet for $100,000 in Hollywood … so a ‘secret’ 15 percent of such an effort by me is a damn good way for Milam and Bryant to make crime pay.”
In the decades that followed, the lies in the Look article continued to be regarded as facts, and Huie continued to be regarded as the expert, appearing in the 1987 documentary Eyes on the Prize.
Huie repeated his claim to viewers that Till was never afraid of his killers.
“All you have to do is read the coroner’s report to know that’s a bunch of s—,” said Tyson, author of The Blood of Emmett Till.
The killers pistol-whipped Till with a .45 automatic, he said. “Two places in his head were completely bashed in.”
Through the Look article, Milam and Bryant hoped to justify their killing to their perceived audience — white Mississippians, he said. “They were saying, ‘You’d have done it. You’d have killed him.”
Till’s cousin: Donham should tell all she knows to ‘help bring closure’
Ask the average American who knows about the Till case, and “they will quote William Bradford Huie to you,” Houck said.
That’s because the Look article functions as a confession from the killers with Huie playing the part of the journalist running down the facts.
Devery Anderson, author of Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement, said he believes Huie “did his homework,” interviewing people in both Mississippi and Chicago.
“However, the ‘confession’ became one in which Milam and Bryant acted alone,” he said, “and so details were falsified where needed to drive that narrative.”
The FBI investigation concluded that many of Huie’s details were false. For example, if Milam and Bryant went all the places the article claimed, they would have driven more than 164 miles — something the FBI concluded was almost physically impossible.
Tell believes the Look article became a vehicle for defense lawyer J.J. Breland’s racist diatribes, pointing out that much of what Milam is quoted as saying in the Look article sounds suspiciously like the lawyer.
“There ain’t gonna be no integration,” Breland told Huie. “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 n—–s that’ll be thrown into it.”
For the most part, Huie went with the tale that the defense lawyers and killers spun for him, justifying the murder and concealing the other killers, Houck said. “The story he told is pretty much a series of lies.”
Despite the current reexamination by the FBI, those familiar with the case doubt there will be any prosecution. In 2007 a majority-black grand jury in Greenwood declined to indict Donham, considering charges ranging from manslaughter to accessory after the fact.
Parker has long been forced to defend his cousin whenever he spoke because of the lies in the Look article, he said. “I tell people, ‘That’s not him.’”
More than anything, he would love to hear Donham share all of what she knows about his cousin’s murder, he said. “That would help bring closure.”