According to the so-called “confession” penned by journalist William Bradford Huie in the January 24, 1956 issue of LOOK Magazine, Emmett Till was beaten in a shed behind J.W. Milam’s house in Glendora, taken to a steep bank on River Road, shot in the head, and dumped into the Tallahatchie River weighted down by a 75-pound blast wheel from a cotton gin. For decades Huie’s account, because it was branded as a “confession,” functioned as the definitive word on what happened to Emmett Till in his final hours.
We now know that Huie’s account was wrong. Till was tortured and killed in a seed barn on what was once the Sturdivant Plantation.
Huie’s story leaves out the explosive eyewitness testimony of 18-year-old Willie Reed, a black plantation worker walking to a local store early on Sunday morning, August 28. Reed saw Milam’s 1955 Chevrolet pickup arrive on the Sturdivant Planation, Emmett Till well-guarded in its bed, and four white men in its cab. Reed then heard screams coming from the plantation’s small seed barn, which was managed by Milam’s brother and Bryant’s half-brother, Leslie.
There is a reason Huie eliminated Reed’s testimony from his story. LOOK refused to print the story without signed consent and release forms from every named participant in the murder. Unsurprisingly, Huie could only obtain such forms from the two men (Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam) who had already been tried and were therefore no longer in legal jeopardy. Leslie Milam had not been tried, he did not sign a release form, and he could not be implicated in Huie’s story. So Huie moved the murder to an abandoned spot of river bank in Tallahatchie County, thus eliminating the roles of Willie Reed (witness) and Leslie Milam (accomplice). Although it is wrong, Huie’s story has been so influential that every single map published on the Till murder between the publication of LOOK’s article in January 1956 and 2005 left the Sturdivant plantation off the map entirely.
Remarkably, among the many Till commemorative sites and signs dotting the Delta landscape, this terribly important place continues to exist in a memory void. There is not a single plaque, marker, or memorial at the still-standing seed barn. With no signs to tell the story, the barren commemorative landscape repeats the lie once told by William Bradford Huie. Huie moved the murder site to hide the complicity of Leslie Milam and others. The lack of memorials at the site makes it all too easy to forget that murderers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam had help.