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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 trial of Williams opened in Covington, Georgia, on April 5; the specific indictment was for the murder of Lindsey Peterson, one of the three men chained and then drowned on February 26. The county courthouse was packed with observers and numerous law officers to preserve order, as blacks and whites mingled in the overflow crowd or strained to catch each word from their segregated vantage points. Williams would be judged by his peers; seven farmers, four merchants, and one druggist were on the jury.
The state claimed that Williams’ motive for murder was to silence his victims in case he was tried for peonage. His defense attorneys countered by attempting to show that the agents had not discovered peonage on the Williams plantations and that Williams therefore did not need to murder the men for fear of prosecution.
Over the objection of Williams’ lawyers, Judge John B. Hutcheson allowed the two federal agents to testify on this point. George W. Brown took the stand first. He told of Williams’ openness and earnestness. He said he had examined the partitioned houses and admitted that they could have been used for keeping prisoners. Williams had explained that he “worked some stockade negroes on his place and … instructed them that they must not leave … until they had paid him back what he had paid out for them.” Brown stated it as his impression that most of the stockade Negroes had left by the time of the investigation. At this point his testimony began to blur and fragment. He would only say of his conversations with the peons that he “didn’t go into details” with them. When cross-examined, the special agent denied that he told a state official, Doyle Campbell, solicitor of the Ocmulgee circuit, that he found nothing objectionable at Williams’ place. Then, the prosecution asked, if there was something objectionable, why had Williams not been arrested? “I don’t make cases,” Brown replied. He added that he had reported to the United States Attorney General and to the district attorney in Atlanta. “I found enough there to issue a warrant on,” he added. “As to why I did not swear one out, Mr. Williams stated that he might have technically violated the law, but he was doing better and [besides] the case was still under investigation.” But this statement conflicted with a report in the New York World that appeared just before the trial began. A correspondent reported that the federal agents had been impressed with Williams’ “frankness” and desire to reform, and they “returned to Atlanta convinced of his innocence.”
Whether the agents glossed over the nature of Williams’ operations, or the district attorney and the Justice Department ignored the report remains a mystery, for the department will not yet make its investigatory files available to researchers.
Agent Wismer gave much the same testimony as Brown, excusing his failure to prosecute Williams with the identical words that Brown used: “I don’t make cases.” He described a house with locks on windows and doors, Manning’s lies, and his own talk with Williams about the meaning of peonage. He said he had told Williams that the fact that his son Leroy was carrying a gun looked bad. But not until two months later, at Clyde Manning’s trial after Williams’ fate was decided—did the agents go into more detail. By then Brown no longer worked for the government. Wismer then admitted that a conversation with Johnny Williams (the first peon to be killed in the grisly week) substantiated the complaints. “Johnny Williams told us,” said Wismer, “that Clyde Manning acted as guard over the hands on the John S. Williams place, he looked after them at night and he was made to tote a pistol.” He added that from the “general attitude” of the blacks he concluded that “they were afraid to tell anything for fear they would tell the wrong thing and would get into trouble and be punished.”
The cooperative attitude of Williams, the agents testified, offset Johnny Williams’ complaints, the barracks with locks, and Leroy’s gun. Nevertheless, they had made complete reports to the authorities. But John S. Williams testified that they told him: “[We] don’t think you need to have any fear of any case before the Federal Grand Jury.” And though Williams’ word was not to be trusted, the fact remains that no charges were brought prior to the finding of the bodies.
Clyde Manning took the stand next. Sitting in the splint-bottomed witness chair, he calmly told of each murder in gory detail. The “coal black, short, stockily built man” impressed a newspaper reporter with his iciness. His voice did not show any emotion nor did he “twiddle a finger of those folded black hands, or shuffle a foot.” Williams “listened with an inscrutable face.”
The two made a grim pair. Williams’ lawyer tried to shake Manning’s testimony by implying that the black was trying to place the entire blame on Williams in order to ease his own sentence. Manning denied that. “As to my expecting to get off lighter,” he said, “I just expect to tell the truth, and take it just as it comes. I ain’t putting no more on Mr. Williams than his part and I ain’t telling any more on myself than my part.”