Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman whose false accusation led to the brutal lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, has died in Louisiana. Till’s murder has long been considered a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement, and Donham’s role in it was reconsidered by a grand jury as recently as last year.

Who was J W Milam?

One of the men accused and acquitted of Till’s murder was J.W. Milam, who, along with his half-brother Roy Bryant, was acquitted by an all-white jury in a trial that drew national attention. But who was J.W. Milam, and what led him to be involved in one of the most notorious lynchings in American history?

J.W. Milam was born on January 25, 1921, in LeFlore County, Mississippi. He grew up in a farming family and had a troubled childhood, frequently getting into trouble with the law. He joined the military during World War II and served in the Pacific theater before returning to Mississippi. In August 1955, he and his half-brother Roy Bryant were accused of kidnapping and killing Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi.

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Till’s murder was one of the most heinous crimes of the era, and it helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. Till was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant Donham, who was working at a store owned by her husband, Roy Bryant. Till was then abducted by Bryant and Milam, who beat him mercilessly, gouged out one of his eyes, and then shot him in the head before throwing his body into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so the world could see the brutality of her son’s death.

At trial, both Milam and Bryant were represented by a young lawyer named J.W. Kellum, who was known for defending white supremacists. The trial was held in Sumner, Mississippi, and the jury was all white, as was the judge. Despite the overwhelming evidence against them, including a confession by Milam, the jury acquitted both men. They later sold their story to Look magazine, where they confessed to killing Till, believing that they could not be tried again due to double jeopardy.

Milam’s life after the trial was marked by controversy and tragedy. He was accused of other crimes, including assaulting a man in a bar and stealing a chainsaw. He was also involved in a shootout with his brother-in-law, which resulted in the death of a police officer. Milam died in 1980, at the age of 59, reportedly of cancer.

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J.W. Milam’s involvement in the brutal murder of Emmett Till is a stain on American history. While he was acquitted by an all-white jury, his role in the crime was never in doubt. The fact that he and Roy Bryant were able to profit from their crime by selling their story to Look magazine only adds to the outrage. Till’s murder helped spark the Civil Rights movement, and it is a testament to the strength and courage of those who fought for justice that we continue to remember and honor his legacy today.