01 June 2010

The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, Part IV

The Trial

When it was all said and done, eleven black men who had been working against their will as peons would be murdered (Peonage, as we have discussed through all of these columns, was a de facto form of slavery that would exist in the Deep South well into the 20th century). A heinous killing spree indeed, it had lasted for a couple of weeks and events would unfold quickly soon thereafter. Several days later, two young boys discovered a human foot sticking out of the Yellow River near Allen’s bridge. The Newton Co. Sheriff was contacted and it was discovered there were actually two bodies that would later be identified as Willie Preston and Lindsey Peterson. Over the course of the next several days, more bodies would be found in the Alcovy and South rivers, and the people of Newton and Jasper counties started to realize that there was something very bad going on.

At this point, the story could have easily ended. Once again, we must remember that this was rural Georgia in the 1920’s. Finding the bodies of murdered blacks was not really out of the ordinary during the heyday of lynchings and mob rule justice. But one simple thing changed all that. A co-worker of the federal agents we discussed in the first couple parts of this article forwarded a newspaper article about the bodies being discovered, and Agents Brown and Wismer figured that this was no coincidence. They got involved and with the help of the Newton County authorities and a former peon, they were able to ascertain that these were indeed former workers of John S. Williams.

Knowing that this was would be under local jurisdiction, the Feds realized that they could not really get involved so they enlisted the aid of Hugh Dorsey, Georgia ’s governor at the time. Dorsey, some suspect, was looking to rehab his legacy after the Leo Frank debacle (Dorsey served as that trial’s chief prosecutor in what is widely believed to be one of the worst travesties of justice in Georgia’s history). With Dorsey and the State of Georgia involved and the Feds working in the background, a case seemed possible if the local authorities were on board. They were. The Newton Co. Sheriff and the local D.A. were up for the challenge. The final piece of the puzzle was getting Clyde Manning’s testimony. From there, it all came together and combined with the arrogance and lack of urgency on the part of Williams and his defense team, a very good case was made in court.

On April 9th, 1921, at the courthouse in Covington and with journalists from as far away as New York watching, the jury comprised of twelve white men returned a verdict—Guilty! It was a huge surprise for just about everybody as it is widely believed that John S. Williams was the first white man convicted of murdering a black in the Deep South since Reconstruction. He was sentenced to life in prison. About a month later, Manning received the same verdict and punishment for his role although it seemed he had no choice in his involvement if he had wanted to stay alive.

Manning would die in prison about six years later from Tuberculosis. Williams would die a few years after that after being crushed by a truck. It is believed that this awful event did have one silver lining—it started to bring an end to the awful practice of peonage and would pave the way for more reform down the road.

I know this has been a sad, tragic, and at times, gruesome tale. I made it a point to mention all eleven victims by name during these past few columns. They all lived very difficult lives only to be murdered because a man didn’t want to deal with the consequences of his actions.

Well…for those of you who stuck with us to the very end—Thank You. I’m glad you did. Next month we are going to revisit John Newton, the namesake of Newton County . In a previous column about the history of Covington , GA , I had mentioned that there were some possible questions regarding the validity of Newton ’s legend. We’ll get involved with that and see if we can figure out—“John Newton: Fact or Fiction?”

Until next time.