What Became of Emmett Till's Killers After They Were Acquitted of His Murder?
Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy visiting family in Mississippi from Chicago, was brutally murdered in August 1955. J.W. Milam and his brother Roy Bryant, both white, were charged with the crime. Unfortunately, to no one's surprise, they were acquitted by an all-white, male jury. What happened to Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after the trial?
What happened to Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam?
Both men ended up living rather unremarkable lives, each dying of cancer, as reported by The Clarion Ledger. A year after the trial ended, J.W. ended up on a farm near Ruleville, Miss. William Bradford Huie of Look Magazine, who interviewed the brothers almost immediately after the trial (more on this in a bit), did a follow-up piece around that time. William said that despite the fact that they were smiling in the photo taken for the article, it was just a facade.
William felt the half-brothers "suffered disillusionment, ingratitude, resentment, [and] misfortune," but didn't appear to feel any sort of guilt or remorse. J.W. owned no land but was eventually able to rent 217 acres in Sunflower County. However, because no Black people would work for him, he was forced to hire white workers to whom he had to pay higher wages. That didn't last. J.W. went from one menial plantation job to another, never staying in one place for long.
On Valentine's Day in 1958, he was seen "standing in a bread line waiting to receive rations from the Welfare Department," per The New York Post (via The Clarion Ledger). While this couldn't be confirmed by the Washington County welfare department, J.W. denied it was true. He and his wife Juanita briefly moved to Orange, Texas, but returned to Mississippi after only a few years. Once back, J.W. had several run-ins with the law, before ultimately dying of an unspecified form of cancer in 1980.
Roy Bryant's post-trial trajectory wasn't very different from his brother's. He and his wife Carolyn (the woman who accused Emmett of harassing her in the store she owned with Roy) lost said store after a boycott by the Black community. The couple moved to Indanola, Miss., where Roy got a job as a mechanic. He later attended welding school in Inverness, Miss., claiming welding would someday lead him to become legally blind.
According to The Clarion Ledger, Indianola police chief Will Love confirmed Roy's attempt to apply to become a policeman. Roy got a series of welding jobs before finally returning to the grocery business. He took over a small store in Ruleville, where he lost his permit to handle food stamps for a year after allowing customers to use them for non-food items.
In 1982, the "Inspector General’s office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture learned that [Roy] had been purchasing food stamps at a discount for cash and then selling them back to the government at full value," noted The Clarion Ledger. For this, he received three years probation and was fined $750. Five years later, he did it again; this time, he was sentenced to two years in prison, but only served eight months. He died of an unknown cancer in September 1994, still claiming he didn't kill Emmett Till.
What did Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam say to 'Look Magazine'?
In January 1956, Look Magazine published an article titled "The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi" by William Huie. In it, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam confessed to killing Emmett Till. The entire piece can be found on PBS. It's graphic and upsetting, and a clear snapshot of the time.
Emmett, whose nickname was Bobo, is painted as disrespectful, which only feeds the rationalization for what the brothers did. J.W. talks about being more afraid they would be caught stealing a fan (which they eventually used to drown him) than of what they were actually doing. It's not shocking in the sense that it is surprising it happened, but it's shocking in its detail and almost pathological promotion of the act. Nothing legally happened to Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam because of this; they just led their sad lives.