By: Davis Houck
Leflore County Sheriff George Smith and his deputy, John Ed Cothran drove north to the Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in the early afternoon of Sunday, August 28; the officers had been informed of what had taken place early that morning at the Wright residence by Moses and his brother-in-law, Crosby Smith.
Not long after talking with Roy Bryant in his patrol car, Smith arrested him for the kidnapping of Emmett Till; he was booked into jail at the Leflore County Courthouse that afternoon. J. W. Milam was arrested the following day, turning himself in to Smith at the courthouse as he worried that his younger half-brother would “shoot off” his mouth and blow their story.
Nearly one week later the two men were moved by Smith more than 50 miles west to the Mississippi River community of Greenville. The Sheriff decided to move Milam and Bryant for fear that they would be lynched by out-of-town black men seeking revenge for the kidnap (and now murder) of Emmett Till. Smith had received a good bit of mail with a Chicago postmark threatening to kill both men. While the threat eventually turned out to be unfounded, Smith took the extreme step of calling out the local National Guard to protect the courthouse and Milam and Bryant. The irony of white law enforcement calling on white national reserves to protect white men from a supposed black threat could not have been lost on locals.
Not long after an 18-member grand jury hearing held in Sumner issued indictments for kidnapping and murder on September 6, Milam and Bryant were moved once again, this time to a jail in the Tallahatchie County community of Charleston. Because the murder had supposedly occurred in Tallahatchie County—the body had been brought ashore near Pecan Point, north of Philipp—and because the murder charge trumped the lesser charge of kidnapping, the trial would be held in the county immediately north of Leflore. In addition, because Tallahatchie County had two county seats due to frequent flooding caused by the Tallahatchie River, effectively bisecting the county, the murder trial would be held in the “western” courthouse since Till’s body was discovered closer to Sumner than Charleston.
After the 12-member all-white, all-male jury declared Milam and Bryant not guilty on September 23, a grand jury was convened at the Leflore County courthouse in early November; its charge was to determine if the two men should be indicted on the initial charge of kidnapping since the Wright residence was in Leflore County. Remarkably, despite confessions that they’d taken a boy (Till) from the Wright house, the grand jury did not issue an indictment, effectively ending the state’s case against Milam and Bryant. Local rumor persists that a cabal of wealthy plantation owners coaxed the grand jury into not indicting the men—despite testimony by Moses Wright and Willie Reed, both of whom fled back to Chicago once the proceedings concluded.