Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Truth Be Told: William Bradford Huie's Emmett till Cycle

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

Truth Be Told: William Bradford Huie's Emmett till Cycle

Article excerpt

I.

To historians of the Emmett Till case, William Bradford Huie is best remembered for purchasing the post-trial confessions of murderers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. Published to great fanfare in the Look magazine in January 1956, Huie's account of Till's abduction, beating, and execution - an account that any discerning reader recognized as coming straight from the murderers themselves - generated a firestorm of interest and outrage.' In the days leading up to and immediately following the publication of the article, Look sponsored a media blitz designed to enfiarne inquiring minds. "Approved Killing in Mississippi!" read the bold headline of one advertisement in the January 14 issue of the Chicago Defender. "For the first time," a smaller sub-headline promised, "THE TRUTH about the Emmett Till Killing." Below these enticements, Look delivered its hook:

Headlines screamed across the nation. Millions of words were written about it. A trial was held. Yet the truth about the Emmett Till killing in Mississippi remained hidden - until now! Now exclusively in Look magazine you can read the story - the story that the jury did not hear, that no newspaper reader ever saw. . . the brutal step-by-step full account of what happened on that fateful night. You'll read how Till was killed, where, why, and by whom! Don't miss this shocking story in Look. It will be making magazine history the minute it hits the newsstands. Get your copy of Look early!

Not surprisingly, many readers secured their copy of Look as quickly as possible (made easier, in large part, by a print run of two million extra copies). The day after Huie's article appeared, the New York Post swiftly decried the state of affairs in the Deep South, concluding that Huie's article "underlines the need for a sweeping Justice Department investigation into the breakdown of law and order in Mississippi." According to the Post, "if a slaying can not only be committed but proclaimed - and that is what the Look report suggests - there is no longer any semblance of protection for the civil rights of Negroes in that state." Although noting that the exposé "isn't a conventional piece of journalism ... [in that Huie] does not tell the reader whether Milam's statements were made directly to the writer or obtained in some other fashion," the paper warned its readers not to dismiss the piece too lightly, for "The Till case haunts the national conscience, and this article, until or unless it is successfully disputed, is a sensational and decisive exhibit."2

Exactly what Huie's sensational article decisively exhibited, however, was open to wide interpretation. Michigan Representative Charles Diggs, one of three African Americans in Congress (and the only one who had attended the trial four months earlier in Sumner), concurred with the New York Post. On January 12, he read Huie's "Shocking Story of an Approved Killing in Mississippi" into the Congressional Record, asserting that "Nothing more graphically illustrates the immediate need for corrective legislation by the Congress of the United States ... The attorney general must be granted sufficient power to intervene in those cases where individual states refuse to provide equal protection of the law for all citizens."3 For completely different reasons, Diggs's Mississippi colleague John Bell Williams read into that same record a few days later a Jackson State Times editorial blasting Huie for "opinionated, baseless reporting . . . [that] must be totally and categorically condemned by fair-minded Americans of all races everywhere."4 In denouncing Huie's article as "a lie out of the whole cloth" - "an act of journalistic prostitution" containing "the most unfair, vicious, vindictive, baseless, scurrilous, scathing, and libelous indictment ever leveled against a state of this union" - Williams was echoing the white Mississippi press, which was universally indignant toward Huie for claiming that the killing was "approved" of by the entire state. …

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