Jackson Daily News
August 25, 1985
EMMETT TILL: MORE THAN A MURDER
Bryant wants the past to ‘stay dead’
By JOE ATKINS
Jackson Daily News Staff Writer
and TOM BRENNAN
Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
Roy Bryant seems to be two men.
On one hand, the 54-year-old white Delta storeowner is sick of questions about the 14-year-old black youth he and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, were accused and acquitted of killing 30 years ago.
This Roy Bryant’s voice becomes a growl at the mention of Emmett Till. “He’s been dead 30 years and I can’t see why it can’t stay dead,” he says.
The other Roy Bryant is an agreeable sort whose face brightens with pride when he talks about the flowers he has grown in front of his store. He says he gets along fine with blacks.
“I don’t mistreat a man because he’s black any more than I do a white man,” he says. “I treat a man like I want to be treated.”
The second side of Roy Bryant wants his privacy and worries that some young black might seek belated vengeance. He possesses such loyalty from friends that one of them nearly slugged a television reporter who recently tried to interview him.
“I don’t know what happened to Emmett Till,” this Roy Bryant says.
Yet, the other Roy Bryant grumbles darkly that he isn’t making a dime out of renewed publicity about Emmett Till’s slaying. He says his memory could be jogged “for a bunch of money.”
This Roy Bryant even thinks enough of his notoriety to keep in his modest brick home a video cassette of the Today show’s recent televised report on the Till case, a show in which host Bryant Gumbel innocently asks, “Whatever happened to Roy Bryant?”
“Hell no, I didn’t do it!” Bryant said during one of two recent interviews at his store and home. “I didn’t admit to it then. You don’t expect me to admit to do it now. Of course they couldn’t do anything to me if I did.”
But, he adds, “I feel this way: If Emmett Till hadn’t got out of line, it probably wouldn’t have happened to him.”
The man who, with Milam, gained international attention in the Emmett Till slaying today lives an obscure life not unlike that of 30 years ago.
He lives in a Mississippi Delta town. He runs a store. He vigorously maintains his innocence in Till’s death.
Bryant mostly refuses to discuss the events of that Sunday morning in August 1955, when Till was dragged from his great-uncle’s home. He and Milam told authorities at the time they’d taken the youth off to punish him but later released him unharmed.
Bryant was described by news reports in 1955 as the handsome ex-paratrooper with the beautiful wife. Now, the good looks and the woman, both, are gone.
Bryant has gained a thick paunch, lost much of his jet black hair and says he is legally blind. He uses a thick magnifying glass to read price tags when he rings up purchases at his store.
He has been divorced for six years from Carolyn Holloway Bryant, the dark-eyed brunette beauty whose honor Bryant and Milam are said to have defended 30 years ago. Bryant says both have remarried, but their three children and eight grandchildren keep them in touch.
“She was a good-looking woman,” he said as he watched an old film of her on the Today report.
Despite the support shown them by white Delta residents during their trial, Bryant and Milam were ostracized afterward by both the white and black communities.
Their isolation worsened after January 1956, when a shattering article by author William Bradford Huie appeared in Look magazine. The article quoted Milam, who described in detail how he and Bryant brutally beat the boy and finally dumped him in the river after Milam shot him.
“J. W. Milam was from Glendora. He was acquitted in the trial, but he was not acquitted by the people of this area,” recalls unsuccessful 1983 gubernatorial candidate Mike Sturdivant, a large landowner in the tiny Tallahatchie County town of Glendora. Sturdivant knew Milam and Bryant.
“J. W. left Glendora because the people in the area convicted him in their relationship with him.”
Bryant bitterly maintains he was driven from the state by the same community that rallied to his and his half-brother’s defense during the September 1955 trial.
“I had to leave to make a living; there was nothing here for me,” he said.
After the trial, he and his first wife tried to reopen the store in Money, the scene of the infamous wolf-whistle, but a boycott by black customers forced its closing.
“We had it open for three weeks and didn’t clear $100,” he said. “I saw the handwriting on the wall.”
Bryant says he did odd jobs for 75 cents a day before learning welding at the Bell Machine Shop in Inverness. The family moved to Orange, Texas, in 1957, where he spent 15 years as a boilermaker – the job he says cost him his eyesight. In 1972, the Bryants returned to Mississippi to take over a grocery owned by one of Bryant’s brothers.
“Mississippi was my home. Once you are raised up in a state, it’s home,” he says.
I wouldn’t have come back to Mississippi for a job.”
For 13 years , Bryant has been satisfied with his hew life. His sister helps him out at the store.
“It may not be much, but it’s a honest living and that’s all a man can ask,” he says.
His domain how is a converted gas station with a wooden floor. The store is cluttered with the mainstays of small-town living: canned goods, snacks, cigarettes and one beer cooler.
As in 1955, Bryant today relies on credit purchases and a black clientele. “I have a good black business, more black customers than whites.”
Chain smoking behind the counter while a spotted cat sleeps nearby on a pile of grocery sacks, Bryant talks not of the past, but of what he has done with the store.
He points with a dedicated gardener’s pride to the rose moss flowers growing by a shoeshine stand outside the store. He welcomes visitors to the café he built in the back, with its three red-vinyl booths, pool table and three-stool bar.
“It is a family type of place,” he said. “We serve plate lunches and sandwiches and that type of stuff (publicity about the Till slaying) just wouldn’t help.”
He speaks fondly of Milam, his half-brother, who was 36 at the time of the Till trial. Milam died of cancer of the backbone on Dec. 31, 1981.
“He was a hell of a fine fellow and brother. He was gentle as a lamb and helped a lot of people that never paid him back.”
Like Bryant, Milam spent many years in Texas after the trial. Like Bryant, he eventually returned to his home state. He lived in Greenville and worked in construction until his illness made it impossible.
“My father never said much to me about it and I never asked,” says Milam’s son, Bill, a 34 year-old Greenville truck driver who attended his father’s trial along with his brother, Harvey, who was 2 years old at the time.
“I don’t have any memories of it at all,” Bill Milam says of the trial in Sumner. “I was so little, didn’t none of it affect me. I never wanted to get involved in it. Most folks I know had never said anything about it.”
Bill Milam is single. Harvey is married and has three children, but Bill wouldn’t say where his brother lives.
Bryant’s son, Frank, shields his mother from publicity. “She doesn’t want to make any comment on anything and she doesn’t want anyone to try to contact her,” he said.
Bryant still fears economic and physical retaliation for the 30-year-old incident and refuses to have his picture taken or to have the location of his store revealed.
“This new generation is different and I don’t want to worry about a bullet some dark night,” he said. “This store is all I have now, that and my disability check.”
Does he have any personal regrets about what happened in 1955?
“You mean do I wish I might wouldn’t have done it? I’m just sorry that it happened,” Bryant said.