April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
The black laborers on John Williams’ plantation never seemed to leave or complain. It took some digging to find out why
Out of the ashes and ruins of the Civil War the shadow of slavery once more crept over the South. Even while some southern Negroes tried to achieve political power, civil rights, and personal security during Reconstruction, many laborers became mired in the quicksand of debt. Booker T. Washington, usually softspoken on economic and social issues, observed in 1888 that black sharecroppers “are held in a kind of slavery that is in one sense as bad as the slavery of antebellum days.” Washington referred to the system of debt that oppressed the black laborer, that “binds him, robs him of independence, allures him and winds him deeper and deeper in its meshes each year till he is lost and bewildered.” Blacks were forced to work without compensation to pay off obligations that somehow became never ending. At the turn of the twentieth century the Justice Department, seeking to end this new form of slavery, discovered that an 1867 federal statute outlawing peonage—forced servitude to creditors—could be used to free laborers who were held involuntarily because of debt.
Booker T. Washington secretly joined in the campaign to eliminate this complicated and often invisible practice that blended into the customs and laws of the South. Yet neither his efforts nor those of the Justice Department ended peonage. It clung to poor workers like a disease. An experienced investigator estimated in 1907 that one third of the large planters “are holding their negro employees to a condition of peonage, and arresting and returning those that leave before alleged indebtedness is paid.”
Periodically throughout the twentieth century, thejustice Department would announce that peonage had been stricken, that only the vestiges of the system remained, but complaints of the practice continued. It was most prevalent during the first dozen years of the twentieth century, but a rash of cases broke out in the 1920’s and again in the late igso’s, and even during the igoo’s the Justice Department continued to receive some fifty complaints of peonage each year. Among those thousands of complaints and cases, one story emerged that drastically illustrated both the dreadfulness of the system and the halting inadequacy of federal officials in controlling it. The tale unfolded in rural Georgia in 1921.
On February 18 of that year federal agents George W. Brown and A. J. Wismer investigated the two-thousand-acre plantation of John S. Williams in Jasper County. Finding the owner briefly away that Friday afternoon, they talked to several of his black workers before he returned, and were especially interested in questioning twenty-seven-year-old Clyde Manning, Williams’ black foreman. They asked him if he and Williams had once caught a Negro laborer named Gus Chapman who had fled from the plantation. Manning said No.
When Williams, a fifty-four-year-old man who one observer said was a “giant in stature,” got back, he learned that the agents were investigating a complaint that he held men in peonage. The planter quickly offered to show the agents anything they wished; then he asked the terms of the law. Wismer and the other agent told him if he “paid a nigger out of the stockade, paid his fine, and kept him working on his plantation … he would be guilty of peonage, since he worked the nigger against his will.” Williams expressed amazement and declared that “I and most all of the farmers in this county must be guilty of peonage.” Then the agents asked Williams, as they had Manning, whether he had caught and returned to his farm Gus Chapman. The planter admitted that he had, claiming that Chapman had assaulted Clyde Manning’s wife and that they had thought of prosecuting him. Brown turned to Manning. “You lied to us about that,” he said.
Williams, at this point, escorted the visitors to his sons’ two farms five miles away and allowed them to talk with any of the hands. Before the federal men left, Williams asked if they had found conditions that would lead to prosecution. Getting no specific commitment, he assured the departing agents that though he might technically be guilty of peonage, he would never break the law again.
Less than a month later a small white boy named Cash spied the foot of a human body near the surface of a stream near Allen’s Bridge in neighboring Newton County. He immediately went for help, and before nightfall on March 13 two Negro bodies had been brought up from the Yellow River. The coroner ruled that the men had been murdered and postulated that they had been bound and weighted and thrown from the bridge alive.
The large crowd gathered at the bridge soon buzzed with speculation about the slain men’s identity. They surmised that Jasper County, rather than their own, would be the place to look for the murderer, because it had a history of racial turmoil. Thus county pride, plus the zeal of a group of conscientious local officers, combined to launch an investigation that led back to the Williams plantation. Within a few days Clyde Manning was arrested on suspicion of murder. On March 24—after being promised protection by officials—Manning confessed that he and John Williams had murdered eleven men. Two days later, with hundreds of local citizens flocking behind, he led law-enforcement officers on a gruesome trip about the county, pointing out the graves of nine other victims.
Williams, never caught without an alibi, claimed that he had been framed by a neighbor who had a feud with him. Nevertheless, he was immediately arrested. The tale that unfolded in the following weeks of trial and testimony revealed a grotesque murder story, a vivid picture of peonage, and a good deal of information that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the federal machinery for investigating southern labor practices.
John S. Williams began his peonage operation while his four older sons were fighting in World War I. To secure labor, he (or, later, one of his sons) would travel to Atlanta, to Macon, or to some nearby jail, pay the fine of a black who had run afoul of the law, and take him back to Jasper County. Indebted to Williams for his bond, the man theoretically worked only until he repaid that sum. Actually, he stayed for as long as Williams could hold him; he moved from peonage to slavery. And Williams was no easy man to escape from. Once the victim reached the farm, he went through a seasoning process. “When we got down there that night,” explained one laborer, “he told me to go in there and stay with the other boys, and when I went in there I just laid down on the floor, I didn’t have any cover and I begun to work the next day, they took me out to work on new ground and I got a whipping that Saturday.”
Williams gave two trusted black men, Clyde Manning and Claude Freeman, authority over the “stockade” (or jail) Negroes. Freeman remembered that Williams gave them both pistols. “He said if any of the hands got away or tried to get away, or did anything to me to kill them, and he said if I let any one get away I would know what was coming then to me.” Manning claimed that he did not relish his job, but having observed Williams for thirteen years, “I was there long enough to find out you had to go ahead and do what he said.”
While Manning managed the peons on the Williams home place, Freeman helped Huland, Marvin, and Leroy Williams on farms five miles away. The house on Huland Williams’ farm had a hall running through it, and Williams stayed on one side of the hall and the blacks on the other. “They had a cleat across there and they had it fastened on the outside of the door and they had a hole through and a big wire run through the hole and there was a bolt in the door, and a hook on the outside,” Freeman recalled. As many as eighteen prisoners slept there at one time.
To enforce discipline on the Williams plantations, the overseers often administered beatings, not only to the stockade men, but also to the free blacks who lived on the place. Freeman’s wife, Emma, stated that she had been whipped “a heap of times” so severely that “the whelps come.” Huland Williams had also hit her with his pistol; she still bore the scar years later. Twenty-seven-year-old Lessie May Whitlow, who cooked for the hands, revealed that the peons were whipped at least once a week. She, too, was once struck on the head with a pistol by Huland, for not having the evening meal ready on time. Nearly all the hands remembered savage assaults, often for trivial or imagined offenses.
Though John S. Williams and his sons had warned the laborers that they would catch and kill them if they tried to escape, several peons attempted to runaway. Sixteen-year-old Frank Dozier, who had been arrested for vagrancy (for merely sitting down at the Macon depot), successfully made it, though Huland Williams spotted him in Covington, twenty miles away, and chased him with a bloodhound. Dozier fled up a creek “and lay in the water all night, under the bridge.” Gus Chapman, whose successful escape and complaint led the special agents to the Williams plantations, tried once earlier and failed. After his recapture, “Mr. Williams took me back and took me down in the wagon shelter and made me pull down my clothes and said he would kill me, but as I was a kind of an old son of a bitch he would let me go that time but if I ever did it again he would sure kill me. … He whipped me with a buggy trace.”
Despite the warnings, beatings, and the bloodhound, the black peons continued to trouble the Williams family. When threats and beatings failed, the atmosphere of the farm became more macabre, more unreal. The Williams men carried pistols and often shot at the peons when their work did not suit the overseers. One, James Strickland, said they “didn’t shoot just to scare me because one time they shot at me and the bullet went through my hat and knocked my hat off.” Another time, John Williams “snapped his pistol” at a worker named Jake “three times and it didn’t fire because it didn’t have nothing in it.” The Williams family knew how to keep men insecure and ready to perform any task at a trot. And unlike slaves, the peons had no monetary value. They could be replaced at the nearest jail.
When all else failed to keep the peons cowed, the Williamses resorted to murder. According to a statement of an old man who had once worked on the Williams place, three laborers had been killed there as early as 1911. The deaths were random, bizarre, unpredictable, without reason. In 1919, as near as determinable, Long John Singleton “went to the goat pasture and never come back.” Rumor around the plantation said that Marvin Williams shot him. Claude Freeman only knew that about a week after Long John vanished “me and Mr. Marvin and Barber was pulling corn, and the buzzards was flying around.” So Marvin went to investigate and returned saying that “John Singleton had come to the top” of a pond on the farm. Freeman testified that Williams got ropes and wire “and took the body out there and put some rock to it and sunk it again.”
In the spring of 1920 Leroy Williams shot Iron Jaw, a stockade Negro. Freeman said that he was “rolling some wire, he was not rolling the wire straight and they whipped him.” When Iron Jaw said he had rather be dead than treated that way, “Mr. Leroy pulled out his pistol and shot him.” In the same year, Nathaniel Wade, nicknamed Blackstrap, was killed for running away—reputedly by one of the other hands on the farm at the orders of Huland Williams. At hog-killing time in the winter of 1920-21, Will Napeer was shot by Huland. Three doctors, including still another of Williams’ sons, tended the wounded man in an unexplained display of concern, but he died that night of abdominal injuries. The doctors failed both to inquire how the shooting occurred and to report it to the authorities. What a white man did to his black laborers was his own business.
By the spring of 1921, then, three of Williams’ sons had committed murder, and virtual slavery existed on the family’s plantations. Williams stated only that he took the men from the jails and worked them just until they repaid him for their fines, but he never said what the wage rate was or how long he kept them. There remains no record of his allowing a man to leave, however, and some of the fines were as little as five dollars. Yet all the blacks on the plantations agreed that they were afraid to leave, afraid to disobey the Williamses, afraid for their lives. These acts of terror took place within several miles of houses and a store. Incredibly, the neighbors seemed unaware of the atrocities, or they were intimidated by the savage reputation of the family.
The Williamses thus seemed secure in their stronghold until the autumn of 1920. Then, on Labor Day, James Strickland escaped. On Thanksgiving, Gus Chapman also took his chance and fled a second time. Both went to Atlanta, where they complained to the Justice Department and spoke of their imprisonment and the murders. The visit of agents Wismer and Brown to Williams’ lands in February, 1921, was the result.
Though Williams had counted on his brand of terror to keep the blacks quiet about his crimes, he must have thought he had reason to fear prosecution. Sometime during the week after the agents’ visit, Williams evidently had a serious talk with his sons about their chances before a federal court. About the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of February, Huland, Marvin, and Leroy Williams left for some unannounced destination. If federal charges emerged, the old man decided, he would face them alone. After the sons were gone, Williams talked to Manning. “Clyde,” he told him, “we are going to do away with these boys and I want you to help.” Manning said he did not want to do that. “Well, by God, it is all right with me, if you don’t want to, it means your neck or theirs,” Williams told him. “If you think more of their necks than you do of your own it is all right.” Manning knew of the earlier killings, and the memory frightened him. His statement to jurors later was: “It was against my will to do it, but it was against my power not to do it and live.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.