J.W. Milam Gravesite

By: Davis Houck

John William (J.W.) Milam died on December 31, 1980 and was buried here at Greenlawn Cemetery in Greenville.
What’s curious about Milam’s final resting place is that family does not surround him, as if he died completely alone. The family cemetery, at New Hope Presbyterian Church near Murphreesboro in the hills south and east of Charleston, is the gravesite of many Milams and Bryants, including his mother Eula Lee and his father, William.

According to those who knew him, Milam excelled at a few things: drinking, shooting, “working negroes,” and soldiering. Regarding the last, Milam was so esteemed on the battlefields of World War II that he was promoted to officer (2nd lieutenant) while actively serving. He left the European theater and returned home to Tallahatchie County (Glendora) as a highly decorated soldier. He married Juanita Thompson in 1949 and the couple had two sons, Horace and Harvey.

When Emmett Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant on August 24 at the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market, he not only insulted southern white womanhood, but perhaps more importantly, he infringed on white southern masculine pride. White women were to be protected, especially from the specter of threatening black men, and the J. W. Milams of the world enjoyed enforcing the protocols of racial etiquette. And so when Roy informed his 36-year-old veteran half-brother of what had supposedly occurred at the store, Milam was quick to respond; the cover of darkness also gave the hard-drinking Milam the protection he needed to kidnap and brutalize Till. From all accounts, Milam did all the talking at the Wright house early Sunday morning, going so far as to threaten Moses Wright’s life if he informed the police. No doubt it was also Milam who figured that his brother Leslie’s residence near Drew might provide a fitting site for Till’s brutalization since it offered the protection of multiple barns and sheds.

After the murder trial and the lack of a grand jury indictment on kidnapping charges, Milam and Bryant cashed in their story to the tune of $3,150 with journalist William Bradford Huie. Milam’s narrative drives Huie’s account of what supposedly happened, including a rather extended pronouncement of Milam’s heroic defense of white womanhood in the wake of the Brown school integration case. That story however, which appeared in LOOk Magazine, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” backfired badly, essentially forcing both men into exile as local white opinion turned against them. Instead of heroic defenders of the Southern Way, both men were ostracized as no-good peckerwoods who’d made a farce of the community’s defense of them.

Milam eventually returned to the Delta, Greenville specifically, and lived a lonely and Spartan existence as a heavy equipment operator. Ravaged by cancer of the back, Milam died on New Year’s eve 1980, at the age of 61.