The Tallahatchie County jail in Charleston, MS may or may not have been involved in the murder of Emmett Till and the cover-up that followed.
According to the century’s most influential account of the murder, the so-called “confession” published in LOOK Magazine in January 1956, the Charleston jail played no role in the Till story. If we believe the LOOK account, then the murder was the carried out by J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant, both of whom were tried, and acquitted, in a court of law. It may be a sad story of racism taking the life of an innocent boy, but at least, LOOK would have you believe, each of the perpetrators stood trial.
In 1955, however, there was no such consensus. The black press believed that far more people were directly involved in the murder and, in 2006, the FBI confirmed that hunch. As the number of perpetrators grows, so too does the likelihood that the Tallahatchie County Jail in Charleston played a key role in restricting the number of men brought to trial.
The story began when Baltimore Afro-American reporter James Hicks went undercover at King’s Place—a Glendora, MS juke joint—where he was informed that two of Milam’s black employees were forced to be involved in Till’s kidnap and murder. The employees were Levi “Too Tight” Collins and Henry Lee Loggins. Because Loggins and Collins were eyewitnesses to the murder they held the potential, if they could be found and convinced to testify, to fundamentally alter the legal proceedings. They could have testified, for example, that Till was tortured on the Sturdivant Plantation in Drew, MS by a party of at least four white men. They also, of course, could testify to the simple fact that Till was murdered (a fact the jury chose not to believe).
Loggins and Collins, however, could not be found. According to Hicks’s source, the men had been booked in this jail, in Charleston, 28 miles away from the trial, to preclude the possibility that they might be found and might testify. Concerns about the safety of the potential witnesses kept Hicks from pursuing this lead immediately. By the time prosecutors Gerald Chatham and Robert Smith checked the jail, there was no sign of Collins or Loggins.
Although neither Loggins nor Collins could be found to testify in the trial, the story Hicks learned at King’s Place—and which implicated this jail—was corroborated in 1955 by the work of Dr. T. R. M. Howard in Mound Bayou, in 1963 by historian Steve Whitaker, and, in 2006 by the FBI. The more we learn about the Till case, the more likely it seems that Loggins and Collins were involved in the murder and detained here, lest they bear witness at the trial.