It was the one phone call William Bradford Huie didn't want.
"Have you heard," said the voice on the other end of the phone, belonging to newspaper editor Joseph Carter, "that three civil rights workers are missing in Mississippi?" Huie replied that he hadn't; he'd been too busy trying to write a novel. More importantly, he didn't want to know about it. He told Carter as much, stating the three were more than likely dead. Carter wanted Huie to go down to Mississippi and cover the case for the paper. Huie repeated he wasn't interested. He was in enough trouble already.
Born and raised in Alabama, Huie graduated with honors from the University of Alabama in 1930. After marrying his high-school sweetheart, he landed a job reporting for the Birmingham Post. His first novel "Mud on the Stars," a fictionalized account of his marriage, was published in 1942 (later filmed in 1960 as The Wild River). He became a war correspondent during the World War II, and wrote about the Ira Hayes tragedy in "The Hero of Iwo Jima." His wartime experience also led him to write "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," the story of a Mississippi prostitute who became a war profiteer in Hawaii. Huie also wrote "The Execution of Private Slovick," and "The Hiroshima Pilot: The Case of Major Claude Eatherly."
All of Huie's books were bestsellers; all were turned into Hollywood movies. As the 40s turned into the 50s, Huie enjoyed a national reputation as one of the toughest and best investigative reporters of the era. None of this, however, was why Huie was in trouble.
His troubles began with an article he wrote for The American Mercury magazine. Titled "The South Kills Another Negro," Huie's article - about an innocent youth being electrocuted for the rape of a white woman - angered whites (especially his neighbours) in the white South. His next story was about Ruby McCollum, an African-American woman on trial for shooting a white physician. McCollum was pregnant (for the second time) with the doctor's baby. If she gave birth to another white baby, her husband was going to shoot her. If she terminated the pregnancy, the doctor was going to shoot her (it's all very sorted and confusing). Seeing the judge was denying McCollum her First Amendment Rights, Huie said as much in open court. This landed him in jail for contempt, and a fine of $22,000. Completely worth it, Huie felt, as his actions ended up saving McCollum from being executed.
Within days of being released from jail, Huie investigated the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a 14-year-old boy who - after whistling at a white woman at a grocery store in Mississippi - was beaten and shot to death by two men. After the jury acquitted Till's murderers, Huie was able to get the men to tell him the truth about what actually happened. Since they couldn't be tried twice, the men agreed - but only if Huie paid them. He did. And while 'checkbook journalism' goes against the ethics of the profession, Huie felt there was no other way to get at the truth of what happened. The men's confessions appeared in the January 1956 issue of LOOK magazine, exposing the rest of America to the racial nightmare of the South. It was this article which ignited the civil rights movement.
Huie continued to focus on civil rights issues, writing about the church bombing in Birmingham, and exposing the racist views of presidential candidate George Wallace. The Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen's Council, and Wallace supporters all came after Huie, who spent the next decade with spotlights on his roof and a shotgun across his lap. The toll all this took on his wife and her parents made Huie promise them he write no more race stories.
And then Carter phoned him about the missing civil rights workers.
Carter pleaded with Huie, stating that since he "had already angered Wallace and his KKK supporters another sin against them would hardly matter." Although Huie slammed the phone down on Carter, he somehow found himself the next morning driving towards Mississippi.
"Three Lives for Mississippi" was published in 1965, with an introduction by Martin Luther King. Again, Huie paid his sources money, but his efforts revealed the location of the civil rights worker's bodies, as well as the inner workings and horrifying practices of the KKK. He repeated this practice again for 1970's "He Slew the Dreamer," paying James Earl Ray $40,000 for his story.
"A lot of people resent using informers," Huie once wrote, responding to criticisms. "I don't recommend it. I just don't know any better way.''
The James Earl Ray book was the last of his civil rights writing, much to the appreciation of his wife. "In the Hours of Night" was Huie's last work, a novel published in 1976. He passed away in 1986, at the age of 76. He didn't live to see it, but his work was crucial to the Justice Department and FBI when they re-prosecuted the Till and missing civil rights workers killers. His hometown of Hartselle (who once wanted to lynch him) renamed their public library after him in 2006.