J.W. Milam was born John William Milam on December 24, 1921, in the small town of Kosciusko, Mississippi. He grew up in a poor, rural family and dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work on his family’s farm. As a young man, he enlisted in the military and served in World War II. After returning from the war, Milam married and had two children. He struggled to find steady work and was often in trouble with the law, with a criminal record that included charges of assault and burglary.
In August of 1955, Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant were accused of kidnapping and murdering Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was visiting family in Mississippi. Till was accused of whistling at Bryant’s wife, Carolyn, which led to his abduction, torture, and murder by Milam and Bryant.
Despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, Milam and Bryant were acquitted of Till’s murder in a trial that lasted less than an hour. After the trial, the two men confessed to the murder in a paid interview with Look magazine. They claimed that they had acted out of a sense of racial duty and that they had no regrets about what they had done.
The murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of Milam and Bryant became a defining moment in the civil rights movement, helping to galvanize activists and bringing international attention to the injustices faced by African Americans in the United States. The case remains a powerful symbol of racial violence and injustice to this day.
After the trial, Milam continued to live in Mississippi and largely avoided public attention. He died on December 31, 1980, at the age of 59. In later years, Milam’s role in the murder of Emmett Till was widely condemned, with many recognizing the brutality of his actions and the harm that they had caused to Till and his family.