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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
In such a case, Georgia law permitted the defendant to give a statement, not under oath or subject to cross-examination. Williams began his statement next day by saying that he had “never had any kind of crime charged against me in my life.” Four of his twelve children had served in World War I . “I have always tried to do the best that I could for my fellow man,” he went on. Newspapers had exaggerated the size of his properties. “Niggers, boll weevil and low price of cotton just about cleaned me up,” was his plaint. Admitting that “like most farmers that I know” he had bonded blacks out of jail and worked them, he stressed that “in many instances” he paid them. Finally, he asserted that following the departure of the agents, he called all his help together and told them they could leave. He gave them five dollars each; and when none appeared next day, he asked Manning where they were. “They went on off last night,” he quoted Manning as saying.
Throughout his testimony Williams tried to make it appear that Manning alone had killed the peons. He, Williams, had offended Manning, he said, when he admitted to the agents that Gus Chapman had been chased, a confession which made a liar out of the black man. Manning had therefore proved willing when the sheriff and other officials “insisted on him telling something on me.” Finally, Williams charged: “He is a very cruel nigger to the niggers, the whole Manning crowd is.” No witnesses spoke up in Williams’ defense. Except for the planter’s own statement, the prosecution’s testimony stood unchallenged.
Williams and his attorneys knew that it was rare for a jury to convict a white man for the murder of a black, especially when the sole witness to the slaying was also black. In fact, Williams was—though he could hardly have known it—the first southern white man since 1877 even to be indicted for the firstdegree murder of a Negro, and he would be the last until 1966. On April 8 the jury was locked up, and Williams, “smiling and unconcerned, chatted with those around him.” He had every reason, it seemed, to be confident, as he “joined his family in a picnic lunch spread on [the] counsel’s table inside the bar.”
The next day the jury returned with the verdict of guilty and asked for life imprisonment. They might have requested the death sentence, a southern newspaper reported, but “there were some who felt rather strongly opposed to hanging a white man based upon the statement of a negro.”
If it was the guilty verdict against a white killer of blacks that made the Williams case unusual, it was the ordeal of Clyde Manning that was most instructive in the ways of peonage, and in how a man could become completely encased in a brutal system. Manning stood trial for murder in May, 1921, and the jury fouhd him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. But his case was appealed successfully on a technicality. At his second trial, on July 26 and 27, 1922, his defense was based on the nature of the compulsion that Williams used. There was no denial that Manning had murdered the men, only the claim that he had been compelled to do so by fear.
The witnesses, those black men and women who had survived, revealed the hopeless desperation, the terror, and the ignorance that characterized the vertiginous world of peonage. They knew little of the country beyond the Williams acres. The farms were twenty miles from Covington, seven miles from Monticello, and only five miles from a place referred to as “Folk’s store.” Yet Claude Freeman, an overseer, testified that he did not even know where that nearby landmark was. Lessie May Whitlow, the cook, made much the same statement: “I don’t know, sir, where Folk’s store is at.” Except for the stockade Negroes, who came from the outer world, most of the blacks had spent their lives on the Williams farms. They knew vaguely that some white people lived nearby, but they had no dealings with them. When the state attempted to show that Clyde Manning could have fled at any time and reported the murders, Emma Freeman answered: “I mean to say he couldn’t get away. I was there, we couldn’t get away.” For the men and women there, the situation was hopeless; peonage on the Williams place was the only life they knew.
Williams’ revealing statement that most of the neighboring planters were also guilty of peonage perhaps explained why no whites complained. His neighbors evidently approved or acquiesced. Those sparsely settled river bottoms were still frontierlike in their customs and seclusion, and strong men were their own law.
Like Williams, Manning made an unsworn statement to the jury. “The crime what I have done, I done to save my own life,” the illiterate Negro began. Following the murders, all the fear born of the farms’ harrowing history encompassed him, for he, better than others, knew the nature of John S. Williams. “After these killings started, he would call me all through the night,” Manning related. “He would call me during the night to see if the cows were in the wheat or in the oats and he would say he heard a noise with the mules … and I figured it he was calling me to see if I was off the place.” Had he fled, Williams would have “found me and he would have brought me back there, and would have killed me.”