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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
Manning said he wanted to flee nonetheless and tell someone of the murders, but he was unfamiliar with the surrounding countryside. “I was raised around there … never had been but a little ways from the farm. … I didn’t know anything about going nowhere.” He also had his family to think of—wife, baby, mother, sister, brothers; “I couldn’t run off with my whole family.” And if he did steal away alone to tell his tale, “my wife and sister and mother would all have been killed right there.” He asked the jury to understand that he had no choice. “Anybody on that place, white folks, that he said to do it … they would have done it.” Manning maintained the same natural, unaffected manner in making this last statement as he had throughout his ordeal. “I am not crying for mercy, just give me justice,” he concluded. And the jury sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The case was closed. Williams and Manning were punished—but not for holding men in bondage, simply for murdering them. Moreover, Manning’s ignorance, Williams’ intimidation of his workers, and the apathy of the federal investigative personnel were not unique; they were typical of the factors that allowed peonage to exist—and these were grim facts of life in the isolated South; nor was there any sweeping investigation into them as an aftermath of the case. The opportunity was lost.
Consequently, peonage continued beyond the 1920’s. Much of its constitutional history emerged in Supreme Court decisions, spurred by numerous complaints, in the iQ4o’s. In ensuing years, despite the civilrights movement and communications developments that seemingly would not permit such a cruel anachronism to survive, peonage occasionally endured in one form or another. The United States Commission on Civil Rights complained in 1961 that between January 1, 1958, and June 30, 1960, sixty-seven accusations were brought to the Justice Department, but no prosecutions followed because none of the charges was deemed valid. Another analysis showed that between 1961 and 1963, the Department dropped 92 out of 104 complaints without even an investigation, and followed up only two with prosecution. And in July of 1969, the New Republic revealed peonagelike conditions among migratory workers in Florida, but Justice Department lawyers denied that the institution any longer existed.
Against this background of governmental inaction, the attitude of the Justice Department toward completing prosecutions in the Williams case appears consistent with the larger pattern. Three of Williams’ sons remained fugitives for several years, facing federal peonage and state murder charges. By 1927 Huland, Marvin, and Leroy Williams had surrendered and made bond. Yet they never stood trial for either state or federal offenses. A United States attorney explained in 1930 that “less than half the witnesses could be located.” Further excusing his failure to bring the culprits to trial, he noted that John S. Williams had been “the real moving spirit of the offense.” The three sons had moved to Florida where “each of them is running a store and filling station and is no longer employing or working labor of any kind.” This seeming good behavior apparently convinced the government lawyer that a trial was unnecessary. Though surviving witnesses would have certainly linked the three brothers to the peonage system, it was the attorney’s belief that such a trial would be a “hopeless task,” and he persuaded the Attorney General to drop the case.
What of the two men who were sent tojail for the murders? For Clyde Manning, his life sentence turned out to be short. One reason offered by the federal government for not trying the three Williams brothers was that Manning, obviously the key witness, had died on the chain gang several years before—presumably of natural causes. And John S. Williams himself furnished the final ironic twist to the case. Years after the trials, on a Georgia prison farm where he had earned the position of trusty, he was killed while attempting to prevent a jailbreak.