By: Davis Houck
Roy Bryant, one of the two men formally tried for the lynching of Emmett Till, was born in Charleston, Mississippi (Tallahatchie County) in 1931.
Raised near the small hollow of Murphreesboro, Bryant served as a paratrooper in the Army from 1950-53. On April 25, 1951, he married 17-year-old beauty pageant winner Carolyn Holloway; the two would have four children, three boys and one girl. The Bryants divorced in 1975 after nearly 24 years of marriage; Roy married Vera Joe Orman in 1980 and the two remained married until his death in 1994 at the age of 63.
Observers might note that Bryant’s grave, just west of Ruleville, has been ritually defaced since his burial here more than 20 years ago.
On the evening of Wednesday, August 24, 1955, Roy Bryant was out of town, driving a truck filled with seafood to Texas. When he arrived back in Money on Friday, several reliable sources indicate that Moses and Elizabeth Wright’s son, Maurice, informed Bryant of what had transpired between his wife and Emmett Till. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) research indicates that Roy accosted several young black boys that Saturday, trying to locate the Chicago boy who’d talked “ugly” to his wife. Later that same day, when he informed his half-brother, J.W. Milam, of what had occurred on the 24th, the older and battle-hardened World War II veteran took charge, which led to Till’s kidnapping and eventual murder in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 28.
Following their acquittal of murder on September 23, and after the Leflore County grand jury refused to issue indictments for Till’s kidnapping on November 7, Bryant and Milam sold their stories to William Bradford Huie for $3,150. That story, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi,” ran in the January 24, 1956 issue of LOOK Magazine, and was an immediate blockbuster. But, for the two brothers who perhaps anticipated local glory, the article instead led to their rather immediate ostracism. Both men and their families soon re-located to east Texas for a lengthy exile, Bryant becoming a welder and Milam an operator of heavy machinery. Local blacks boycotted Bryant’s grocery and local whites wouldn’t front Milam a loan to put in a cotton crop.
Hard up for money later in life, unhealthy, nearly blind, and bitter about his role in the history of American race relations, Bryant confessed to one radio interviewer that “Emmett Till had ruined [my] life.” There’s a grain of truth in Bryant’s ironic plaint: what he and his accomplices did to Emmett Till had in fact deeply shadowed Bryant’s remaining 39 years. And beyond.