What's Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?
After publishing the confessions of Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam in Look magazine in January 1956, author William Bradford Huie followed up with this article the following year to update readers what life was then like for the two acquitted men. This article also appeared in Look 22 (January 1957): 63-66, 68. Each section is divided and numbered with the original pagination.
WHAT’S HAPPENED TO
THE EMMETT TILL KILLERS?
By WILLIAM BRADFORD HUIE
In the year since Look first revealed details of the case, many of those who rushed to the aid of Milam and Bryant have changed their attitudes
A year ago, Look published my report of how two white ex-soldiers in Mississippi, J. W. Milam and his half brother, Roy Bryant, killed a Negro youth from Chicago, Emmett (Bobo) Till. Even though a jury had found the two not guilty of murder, it was a report that nobody could refute. Recently, I revisited Mississippi to learn how their crime has affected their lives.
Look readers will recall the salient points of the story:
Bobo Till, visiting his country cousins in the Delta in August, 1955, boasted of sexual relations with a Chicago white girl whose picture he carried. The local Negro youths, “just to show us how much you Chicago cats know about white girls,” dared Bobo to enter a crossroads store at night and ask Bryant’s young wife “for a date.” While the Delta Negroes peered, in delicious awe, through the front windows, Bobo took the dare; Carolyn Bryant chased him with a pistol and, in a gesture of adolescent bravado, Bobo “wolf-whistled” at her.
Early in the morning of August 28, 1955, Milam and Bryant abducted Bobo from his uncle’s farmhouse, intending to beat him and “chase him back to Chicago.” But instead of cowering, Bobo taunted them about his relations with a white girl, whereupon they took him to the Tallahatchie River, where Milam killed him with one bullet from an Army .45. They fastened a gin fan to his neck and threw him in.
When the body was found, the most celebrated race-sex case since Scottsboro was born. Outsiders, both white and Negro, flooded the little town of Sumner, Miss.; and many Delta whites, including all five of Sumner’s attorneys, “fought the invasion” by contributing money and voice to the defense. Milam and Bryant had admitted the abduction to arresting officers, denied the slaying; the prosecution had no witnesses to a murder; the defendants did not testify at the trial; and the jury found them not guilty.
To establish the truth, I traveled a year ago from my home in Alabama, first to Mississippi, then to Chicago. Facts which the prosecution had been unable to present at the trial, I found easily; the scene of the slaying; where the gin fan had been picked up; the time of the disposal of the body. Moreover–and to some people, this sounds incredible–Milam and Bryant were not reluctant to talk.
This didn’t surprise me. Milam is a skilled mechanic, an expert,
decorated soldier who won a battlefield commission in the Bulge; he is articulate. He and his younger brother don’t feel they have anything to hide; they have never regarded themselves as being in legal jeopardy. Not even psychologically are they on the defensive. They took it for granted before the trial that every white neighbor, including every member of the jury and every defense attorney, had assumed that they had indeed killed the young Negro. And since the community had swarmed to their defense, Milam and Bryant assumed that the “community,” including most responsible whites in Mississippi, had approved the killing.
Milam said: “I didn’t intend to kill the nigger when we went and got him–just whip him and chase him back up yonder. But what the hell! He showed me the white gal’s picture! Bragged o' what he’d done to her! I counted pictures o’ three white gals in his pocketbook before I burned it. What else could I do? No use lettin’ him get no bigger!”
With that judgment, it was, and is, inconceivable to J. W. Milam that any “real American” would disagree–certainly no “red-blooded, Anglo-Saxon, Southern white man.”
Why hadn’t Milam and Bryant “talked” before I arrived? Nobody had asked them. Their “enemies” had assumed that they wouldn’t talk; their “friends” had preferred that they say nothing.
In this category were the defense lawyers, who, concededly [sic.], are honorable men. Only one of the five, in preparing the defense, dared ask Milam if he had, in fact, killed the young Negro. Milam cleared his throat to speak, but the lawyer, on second thought, stopped him.
The attorneys preferred, as was their legal right, to conduct the defense and erect smoke screens about the “forefathers” and the “Southern way of life” and to attack the “identification of the corpus delicti” without having asked their clients for the facts.
One lawyer told me: “No, I didn’t question them. I guess I assumed they’d killed him; but my wife was worried, and every night after we turned out the light, she had been asking me if they were guilty and I had been telling her no. So I figured the less I really knew the better.”
That was the figuring of most of the literate Southerners who defended Milam and Bryant and “Mississippi.” They preferred to “defend”–to “beat off their enemies”–without determining the truth. So, during the past year, they have had to adjust to a cruel irony: They won their battle with “outsiders”; they won an acquittal for
Milam and Bryant; then, they had to face every detail of the truth.
Did I pay Milam and Bryant? I didn’t pay them for the truth. I already had it. I did, later, purchase from them the right to portray them on the screen. I regard this story as the best of the race-sex cases with which to explain the nature of the racial conflict in America in 1957. I intend to film it. It isn’t a story with “two sides”; but it does have an indivisible truth.
That truth is that the Southern white of the Milam type–and there are thousands of them–will not countenance even discussion of interracial commingling involving the sexes.
In the face of this situation, however, I have found that the Mississippi community in which Emmett Till was killed has developed a strong sense of repugnance to the whole episode.
On my recent trip to Mississippi, I talked with white men in Jackson, Greenwood, Sumner, Indianola, Glendora and Tutwiler. Then, early one morning, Milam met me in Ruleville. It was during the cotton-picking season, and he was servicing two mechanical pickers which were running his own field nine miles from Ruleville. He was driving the same Chevrolet pickup in which he had hauled Bobo to his death; I got in the pickup and we drove back to his field. We sat talking and watching the two big pickers crawling up and down the rows. I asked him to help me reconstruct all that had happened to him and Bryant since the trial and publication of the story.
They have been disappointed. They have suffered disillusionment, ingratitude, resentment, misfortune.
Milam obviously isn’t sorry he killed Bobo–to him, he had no choice–but it was an unlucky event for him.
For years before the slaying, the numerous Milam-Bryant clan had operated a chain of small stores in the Delta, stores dependent on Negro trade. At the time of the slaying, the mother had a store at Sharkey; Bryant had the store at Money in which the incident occurred, and Milam’s brother-in-law, M. L. Campell, had the store at Glendora in which Milam was working.
Now, all these stores have been closed or sold. The Negroes boycotted them and ruined them.
Many Negroes Won’t Work for Milam
Milam, too, at that time, employed Negroes to operate his cotton pickers. He was reputed to be expert in “working niggers.” Now, many Negroes won’t work for him, and he has to employ white men at higher pay.
When Bryant’s store was closed, he had trouble getting a job. So now, with assistance under the GI Bill of Rights, he is going to welding school at the Bell Machine Shop, in Iverness. He and Carolyn and their two children live in Indianola, and he draws about $100 a month as a veteran. Had he been convicted of a felony, he would have been ineligible for this assistance.
“Roy’ll have it tough, I’m afraid,” Milam said. “It takes a long time to learn welding, and by the time you’ve learned it, you’ve ruined your eyes.”
With the stores gone, Milam had to return to farming. He owns no land, and he was shocked when landowners who had contributed to his defense declined to rent to him.
Along with land, he needed a “furnish” of $5,000 to put in a cotton crop. He had more equipment than the average renter, but despite this advantage, he had trouble getting a “furnish.”
In all of Tallahatchie County–the county which had “swarmed” to his defense–he couldn’t rent land. The Bank of Charleston, largest in the county, refused him a loan. (The county attorney, J. H. Caldwell, Jr., who had prosecuted Milam and Bryant, is influential at this bank.)
Finally, Milam, with his brother-in-law, M. L. Campbell, was able to rent 217.4 acres in Sunflower County, near the vast plantation owned by U. S. Sen. James O. Eastland. And at the last moment, he
was able to get a $4,000 “furnish” at the Bank of Webb–in Tallahatchie County. It is unusual for a bank to “furnish” a crop outside its county; one explanation is that a member of the loan committee at the Bank of Webb is John W. Whitten, Jr., of the law firm of Breland & Whitten, most powerful firm in Tallahatchie County, which defended Milam and Bryant.
“I had a lot of friends a hear ago,” Milam observed. “They contributed money to my defense fund–at least, they say they did. We never got half of what they say was contributed. I don’t know what happened to it, but we never got it. Since then, some of those friends have been making excuses. I got letters from all over the country congratulating me on my ‘fine Americanism’; but I don’t get that kind of letters any more. Everything’s gone against me–even the dry weather, which has hurt my cotton. I’m living in a share-crop with no water in it. My wife and kids are having it hard.”
Perhaps the unkindest cut to Milam was struck by Sheriff E. D Williams of Sunflower County. Milam carries at all times the big .45 automatic with which he killed Bobo. He can knock off a turtle’s head at 50 feet. But after he moved to Sunflower County, the sheriff stopped him in Indianola and ordered him to quit carrying the gun.
Mississippi law is liberal on this point. If you can prove your life is being threatened, you can carry a weapon. Milam has no lack of such proof: The one type of letter he continues to receive from outside the state is the death threat to him or his children. Yet, despite these threats, he has had his ultimatum from the sheriff.
So Milam is confused. He understands why the Negroes have turned on him, but he feels that the whites still approve what he did. Why, then, should they be less co-operative than when they were patting him on the back, contributing money to him and calling him a “fine, red-blooded American”?
The explanation was given to me by a responsible citizen of Tutwiler, in Tallahatchie County.
“Yeah, they came up here looking for land and a ‘furnish,’ he said. But we figured we might as well be rid of them. They’re a tough
bunch. And you know there’s just one thing wrong with encouraging one o’ these peckerwoods to kill a nigger. He don’t know when to stop–and the rascal may wind up killing you.”
Along the highways in Mississippi now, there are signs: MISSISSIPPI -- THE MOST LIED ABOUT STATE IN THE UNION. And to try to counteract these alleged lies, the state recently entertained a group of New England editors. To these editors, Gov. James P. Coleman said: “We might have convicted the Till murderers if it hadn’t been for Congressman Diggs and those other Negroes who came down here from the North.”
That isn’t quite true, as social conditions in Mississippi prove. Milam and Bryant can’t be prosecuted for murder again–the Constitution protects them from that. They are still under bond on a charge of kidnapping Emmett Till, based on their own statements to arresting officers. But three grand juries have failed to indict them.
Why don’t the grand juries indict, so the two men could then be tried? Jurors in Mississippi are male, white “qualified electors.” And the state concedes the defense precious advantages in the selection of a trial jury.
The State of Mississippi can never convict Milam and Bryant of this crime before a jury. For, on any such jury, the defense can be certain of enough of what Milam calls “real, red-blooded, Anglo Saxon, Southern white men” to at least insure a mistrial.
Milam and Bryant will not be tried again; but as landless white men in the Mississippi Delta, and bearing the mark of Cain, they will come to regard the dark morning of August 28, 1955, as the most unfortunate of their lives.