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“We Are Going To Do Away With These Boys …”
The black laborers on John Williams’ plantation never seemed to leave or complain. It took some digging to find out why
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
The killings began within a week of the agents’ call. Ironically, the first to die bore the name of Johnny Williams. Manning and John S. Williams went to the pasture where this peon was working, and the planter ordered Manning to kill him with an axe. The doomed man “kept backing around,” Manning related, and “I didn’t want to hit him, he was beggin’ and going on, and I didn’t want to kill him.” But when Williams himself demanded the axe, Manning was afraid to hand it over, so he swung at the peon, “hit him one lick on the back of the head, sort of side of the head with the back of the ax, and then weduga hole there.” Three other men, “Big John,” Johnnie Green, and Willie Givens, were also murdered with an axe. For six others, death came by water. Manning remembered vividly how it came to Lindscy Peterson, Will Preston, and Harry Price. On February 26 Williams told these three stockade laborers on his sons’ farms that he would take them to the train that night. After supper he loaded them in a car along with Manning and Charlie Chisholm, a peon whose bond had been paid three or four years earlier. After driving a few miles, they stopped the car, and Manning and Chisholm bound the other three blacks with trace chains and hung hundred-pound sacks filled with rocks around their necks. The three submitted, possibly in ignorance of what was coming. “Lindsey Peterson and Will Preston, they didn’t think we were going to do anything to them, until we got to the river.” But when they were hoisted to the railing of a bridge where they were next taken, “they were scuffling and trying to keep back, to keep from going over, and he told us to push them over … and we throwed them over.” Williams now drove several miles to another bridge, over the South River, and it was Price’s turn. He begged Manning: “Don’t throw me over, I will get over.” Then he “crawled up on the bannister, set up on the bannister, he set there just a little while, and he says ‘Don’t throw me.’ He says, ‘Lord, have mercy’ and went right on over.”
Two other peons known only as Little Bit and Red were tossed, bound and weighted, into the Alcovy River. And so was Charlie Chisholm, only a week after he helped to drown three of his fellow victims. Two blacks, Artis Freeman and Fred Favors, were apparently dealt with by Williams alone. He drove Freeman away and returned without him, while Favors, after being spoken to by Williams, left for Huland Williams’ farm and was never seen by Manning again. Finally, Williams shot Fletcher Smith with a shotgun, and Manning assisted in burying him. That brought the total of certain dead to eleven. “After we got him covered up we plowed over him again.” Williams now made a final threat: “Clyde, I don’t want to hear nothing from this. There is nobody knows about this but just me and you. If I ever hear it come out I will know where it come from.” Manning assured him: “I ain’t going to say nothing about it to nobody.”
But under the pressure of arrest and interrogation, Clyde Manning confessed. Sheriff B. L.Johnson, of Newton County, thereupon promised that he would get the full story of the murders and would not sidestep his responsibility. Though he was the one who led the investigation, he took occasion, on March 26, to praise Sheriff W. F. Persons, of Jasper County, of whom he said there was not “a man in Jasper or Newton county more determined than he is to bring the whole truth to the surface.” Sheriff Persons needed publicrelations help, for he was a cousin of John S. Williams. Moreover, he himself had only recently received one of the rare indictments in Georgia for holding workers in bondage.
Two days after Manning disclosed the location of the remaining bodies, rumors spread throughout the area that the blacks of Jasper County were gathering along the river bank, There were reports of black insurrection. Suddenly, the roads were clogged with automobiles bearing armed white men, racing toward the river. There, they discovered the blacks holding a prayer meeting, and sheepishly returned home. Later, looking into the murders, the grand jury learned that anonymous letters had been sent to white planters in the area warning them of “black vengeance.” Further probing revealed that the notes actually had been sent by three of Williams’ sons. The jury concluded that the Williams menfolk had sought to bring about a race war in order to shift attention from their father and create a climate of opinion that would discredit Clyde Manning’s testimony. Such was also the view of James Weldon Johnson, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who editorialized in the Negro newspaper, the New York Age , that in the entire history of peonage the Williams affair was “the most flagrant and savage case.”
The general reaction of disgust at the grotesqueness of the crimes was not restricted to northern whites and blacks but was also felt among many Southerners. Georgia’s Governor Hugh M. Dorsey, for example, deplored the killings, and a white Georgia church organization declared that “Christ … is using the murder of the eleven negroes … to wake Georgia to the need for justice to the negro.” Even rural Georgia whites, who were usually reluctant to admit the existence of sin in their midst, were shocked. It was the brutal nature of the drownings, the publicity,the vivid confession of Manning, and the apparent lack of provocation such as an assault by the victims on white people (“There wasn’t even a remote phase of the ‘usual crime’ involved,” one southern newspaper admitted) that led to Williams’ murder indictment.