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Why It's Unlikely the Emmett Till Murder Mystery Will Ever Be Solved

Nearly fifty years ago, one of the most sensational murders in American history took place. In August 1955, two white half brothers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, kidnapped Emmett Till, a fourteen year old black boy, from his great uncle’s home. Several days later, his brutally beaten and horribly disfigured body was fished out of the Tallahatchie River. What had Till done to merit such treatment? Witnesses said that he wolf-whistled, and perhaps made suggestive remarks, to Bryant’s pretty young wife while buying bubblegum at Bryant’s store in the hamlet of Money, Mississippi.

Like countless black males before him, Till had received the ultimate punishment for threatening Mississippi’s rigid code of racial etiquette. In the past, the press would have ignored such a killing. But this time it was different. The Till case was a media sensation as journalists from all over the world flocked to the small town of Sumner for the trial. When a Mississippi jury acquitted Milam and Bryant in September, protests erupted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and many other cities. Some historians contend that the fall-out from these events sparked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Only three months after the trial, in December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott was underway because Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.

Today the Till case is once again in the news. Although Milam and Bryant are long dead, some have argued that the murder was part of a broader conspiracy. The recent trials of Byron De La Beckwith and Bobby Frank Cherry have fueled the calls from the New York Times and others to reopen the case and to prosecute possible accomplices. These calls are understandable but our investigation (which includes conversations with key witnesses) has led us to be skeptical that the mystery behind the murder can ever be solved.

Until recently, few of those familiar with the case considered it worthwhile to even ask how many people killed Emmett Till. For decades, most took their cues from journalist William Bradford Huie, who revealed in an article for Look in 1956 how Milam and Bryant, safely acquitted after their trial in September, had proudly confessed to the murder. Huie strongly implied that they were the only perpetrators. The effect of the article, appropriately titled, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” was so profound that it pushed aside any serious discussion of accomplices for decades to come.

It had not always been so. During the last months of 1955, many journalists, civil rights activists, and law enforcement officials seriously pondered whether Milam and Bryant had help. Even the prosecutors belonged to the ranks of the conspiracy theorists. They had based much of their case on the testimony of Willie Reed, an eighteen-year old high school student. Reed described how he had observed Till, along with three whites (including Milam) and two blacks, in a pickup truck shortly after the kidnapping. The truck pulled into an equipment shed near Drew, Mississippi and he heard “licks and hollers” that sounded like a beating. The prosecutors never asked Reed to identify the other men in the truck. The press, law enforcement, and civil rights leaders, however, focused on three black employees of Milam: Levi “Too Tight” Collins, Henry Lee Loggins, and Willie Hubbard. Black journalist James Hicks alleged that the sheriff had locked up Collins and Loggins in jail during the trial under false names as part of a cover up. In November 1955, Hicks wrote an open letter to Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr., which urged the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate. The FBI briefly considered the matter but decided not to enter the case stating that it did not have jurisdiction because state lines had not been crossed.

Initially, Huie agreed that others had helped Milam and Bryant in their crime. In October 1955, he declared matter-of-factly that the “torture-and-murder party” included two other men but also warned that it was essential to “have their releases -- or no publisher will touch it. I know who these men are: they are important to the story, but I have to pay them because of their 'risks.'" Unfortunately, he never indicated their identity or race. Although Huie considered the securing of four releases as possibly “too heavy a handicap,” he suggested that “we can if necessary, omit the names of the other two. We can even avoid all reference to them.” He cautioned, however, that he would urge “any publisher to state that they were present.”

Huie abruptly shifted gears after his first meeting with Milam and Bryant on October 23. Without elaboration, he reported to his publisher that he now believed that the two had acted alone. Perhaps not coincidentally, Huie emphasized how this new development simplified the otherwise laborious and expensive process of getting releases. This was the last time he openly acknowledged, or even hinted, at a broader conspiracy.

Huie’s article did not explicitly address whether others took part but it left the strong impression that the kidnapping/murder was an exclusively Milam and Bryant affair. If he thought the pair acted alone, why was he so reticent to refute alternative theories, including those of the prosecution, about accomplices? Possibly, despite his statement that Milam and Bryant were the only perpetrators, he still had doubts and did not want to give his editors a pretext to veto publication.

The closest Huie came to addressing the issue is when he turned to the question of why Till did not try to escape though he was alone in the back of the truck and not tied up. For Huie, this was “the remarkable part of the story.” Till did not flee because he “wasn’t afraid of them! He was as tough as they were. He didn’t think they had the guts to kill him.”

Huie’s failure to raise the possibility of co-conspirators does not mean that he ignored the issue in other contexts. It is almost certain that he was the anonymous “informant” for an overlooked, but fascinating, story in the Tri-State Defender of Memphis on January 14, 1956. Huie’s probable intention was to launch a preemptive strike against any counterattack by advocates of a conspiracy theory. The informant dismissed claims that others helped Milam and Bryant as “a myth, shear nonsense” because the two men “would hardly take a Negro along on such a mission.” While a pickup truck with four whites and three blacks had indeed pulled into the equipment shed, it was for an innocent fishing trip. The noise Reed heard was not from a beating but “the sound of persons playing around as the boat was being loaded.”

An item in Huie’s correspondence provides the best evidence that he was the informant. It is an unsigned written note (probably from October) stating that two white men “got a boat that sunday morning out of that shed. One of them has a green and white truck -- like Milam's." Otherwise, his correspondence is silent on Reed’s testimony. The Tri-State Defender was the only publication that mentions the “fishing party” explanation.

Huie need not have worried about making a preemptive strike. The shock created by the breathtaking boldness of the confession in Look overshadowed nearly all else. This was true even for blacks who had worked the hardest to uncover and publicize possible accomplices. Although he had personally aided Reed when he fled to Chicago, for example, Representative Charles Diggs, a black congressman from Michigan who had attended the trial, implied that the Look article was the unvarnished truth. As he inserted it into the Congressional Record, he remarked that the article’s “stunning revelations are so detailed [that] there is no doubt in my mind that the information came from the killers themselves.”

Not even Hicks complained. Like Diggs, he seized upon Milam and Bryant’s confession as a pretext for federal action. He wrote a second open letter to Brownell, citing Huie to back up his demand for an investigation. Never once mentioning Loggins, Collins, Hubbard, or Reed, he stressed that ”you now have the net result of my charges dumped right into your lap by none other than Milam and Bryant themselves.” To be fair, Hicks had compelling reasons for this strategy. Milam and Bryant’s confession was so blatant and racially charged that it seemed to offer the best chance ever to get some traction from the case.

Dr. T.R.M. Howard of the all-black town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi was the probably most prominent black leader to remain fixated on the need to track down possible black accomplices. A mentor to Medgar Evers, he was a civil rights legend in Mississippi and one of the wealthiest blacks in the state. During the trial, Howard opened his home to serve as a “command center” for black journalists and witnesses. Both Mamie Bradley, who was Till’s mother, and Representative Diggs stayed there. Howard’s version of the kidnapping and murder, which stressed the possible role of Loggins and Hubbard, appeared in a small booklet in February 1956, Time Bomb: Mississippi Exposed and the Full Story of Emmett Till. The author was Olive Arnold Adams, the wife of Julius J. Adams, the publisher of the New York Age, but Howard was her main source. He also wrote the forward.

In addition to Time Bomb, a series of articles appeared in the California Eagle, a black newspaper in Los Angeles. The author was a mysterious white Southern reporter who wrote under the pseudonym of Amos Dixon. Dixon put forward essentially the same thesis as Time Bomb but offered a more detailed description of the possible roles of Loggins, Hubbard, and Collins. He also alleged that another brother of Milam and Bryant, Leslie Milam (now dead) took part in the crime.

Dixon’s articles and Time Bomb had almost no lasting impact. Huie’s version of events thoroughly dominated the discourse. As a result, the names Levi Collins, Henry Lee Loggins, and Willie Reed, were mostly forgotten. Of course, the triumph of Huie’s interpretation does not prove that it was accurate.

So Where's the Truth?

As part of our biography of Dr. Howard, we tried to test Huie’s veracity. Our efforts were generally unsuccessful. Although we were able to find some of the principals, the facts remain as difficult as ever to pin down. The alleged beating in the equipment shed is an example. We had a brief conversation with one of the white men, who, in Huie’s notes, helped to retrieve the boat. He refused to be taped or to give a formal interview but he vigorously denied that he had ever been in the equipment shed.

We found Willie Reed to be just as credible as most of the journalists and prosecutors who heard him testify in 1955. When we asked whether the group at the equipment shed could have been a fishing party, he laughed, pointing out that the men did not have any fishing poles. He was emphatic that the noise he heard was from a suffering human rather than the racket associated with a fishing party.

Our interview with Loggins who, like Reed, had apparently not spoken before to any researcher of the case for decades was less productive. He flatly denied any involvement though he readily admitted that he had worked for Milam and knew Collins and Hubbard. While he was somewhat vague on his whereabouts during the kidnapping, he indicated that he was in bed at home in Glendora.

Several of Loggins’s statements raised questions about his credibility. More than once, he not only denied that he was in the truck but also that anyone ever claimed otherwise: “No, they didn’t say I was on the back of that truck. They say Too Tight was on the back and some other boy, named, we called him ‘Also.’” Who was “Also?” Loggins does not remember Also’s real name or what happened to him but said that he worked for Milam. Loggins insisted that he was not in jail during the trial.

In a subsequent interview with filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, Loggins reiterated his total innocence. But he also contradicted what he told us earlier. Most glaringly, he asserted that Milam had the sheriff lock him up on a trumped up charge that he had stolen some iron. Loggins speculates that Milam “thought I was going to tell about Emmett Till. Hell, ain’t nothing I can tell. Nothing more than what was told to me.” Most intriguingly, Loggins says that the jail was located in Sumner not, as Hicks had alleged, in Charleston.

The evidence in the Till case is replete with inconsistencies and this is no exception. It is possible that Loggins meant to refer to an incident in 1957 or 1958 that Louis E. Lomax reported in the Washington Afro-American on April 8, 1958. Lomax stated that he had located Loggins in a Mississippi jail where he was held on unspecified charges “placed by the alleged killer of Till.” Loggins promised to talk if Lomax bailed him out but he dropped from sight on his release.

Only a few years after the trial, an M.A. thesis by Hugh Stephen Whitaker gave compelling support to the theory that Loggins and Collins were in jail during the trial. Whitaker stated that defense attorneys and others had confirmed that the two were imprisoned under false identities. Compounding the confusion for scholars who want firm answers, Whitaker identified the jail as located in Charleston, not Sumner.

We had mixed success in finding information about other principals in the case. Nobody seems to know what happened to Willie Hubbard or the mysterious “Also.” The rumors about Collins are almost legendary. They include stories that he moved to Seattle, fell victim to foul play, or, plagued by guilt, had gone insane or committed suicide. His actual fate was comparatively mundane. He returned to Mississippi where he worked in a compress warehouse until he died of natural causes in 1993.

It is entirely possible that others, besides Milam and Bryant, took part in Till’s kidnapping and killing. Proving this is another matter entirely. Key witnesses, including, of course, Bryant and Milam are dead. Memories have become hazy and unreliable. Taken together, we believe that the evidence is too thin, too circumstantial, and too contradictory, for definitive answers. Virtually all the other alleged accomplices are dead. Any black man who helped in the crime was probably not a free agent in any meaningful sense. For all these reasons, we are dubious that reopening the case will produce a satisfactory conclusion.