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On Sunday, August 28, 1955, just hours after Till was killed, Leflore County Sheriff George Smith arrested murderer Roy Bryant and booked him into the jail at the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood. J. W. Milam was arrested the following day, turning himself in 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 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 kidnapping (and now murder) of Emmett Till. Smith had received a good bit of mail with Chicago postmarks threatening to kill both men. While these threats were 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 an imagined 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 law enforcement mistakenly believed that the murder had occurred in Tallahatchie County (because the body had been brought ashore north of Philipp), and because the murder charge trumped the lesser charge of kidnapping, the trial was held in Tallahatchie County.
After the 12-member all-white, all-male jury declared Milam and Bryant not guilty on September 23, a second 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. Remarkably, despite confessions that Milam and Bryant had forcibly taken a boy (Till) from the Wright house, the grand jury did not issue an indictment, effectively ending the state’s case against the murderers. Local rumor persists that a cabal of 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.
The nation turned its eyes to the Leflore County Courthouse once again in February 2007. Dale Killinger and his FBI colleagues compiled vast mountains of evidence and expected to secure an indictments against Carolyn Bryant (there is no statute of limitations for manslaughter in Mississippi) and Henry Lee Loggins. But the racially mixed grand jury convened by District Attorney Joyce Chiles did not return an indictment. The long wait for justice continues.