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John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921

Southern Peonage Draws National Attention

Williams and Manning were both indicted in Newton County for three counts of murder. They were to be tried separately. They would also go to trial for one murder at a time; that way, if found innocent on one charge, they could then be tried on another.

Williams went to trial first. In the meantime, the "death farm" killings drew national attention. The extent of Williams's crimes shocked even southern society and forced southerners to openly admit that peonage existed. Editorials tried to set Georgia apart from the rest of the former Confederacy, and southern political and religious leaders declared that the trials should mark the beginning of an improvement of how blacks were treated.

Described by the Atlanta Constitution as "Georgia's greatest murder trial," Williams's trial began on April 5, 1921. Williams's attorneys protested that they didn't have enough time to prepare an adequate defense, but their objections were overruled. Because of the unusual circumstances of the case, the state provided two lawyers to assist the local prosecutor. Manning was the main witness against Williams. In his own defense, Williams claimed that he knew nothing about the killings and that Manning was a dangerous character. The defense also tried to imply that the charges were a conspiracy by Governor Dorsey, the Bureau of Investigation, and wealthy urban liberals from Atlanta to stir up the blacks in Jasper County.

Williams wasn't too concerned about his fate. After all, the 12 members of his jury were all white, and Williams did not believe that they would convict a white man of anything on the word of a black. Therefore, his "temporary" confinement and trial were a small price to pay for disposing of the evidence that would have led to a peonage conviction. However, after several hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of "guilty." Indeed, it later became known that the jurors were quick to agree on Williams's guilt and that they spent most of their time trying to decide whether he should hang. On the jury's recommendation, Williams was sent to prison for life.

Manning's trial began on May 30. The proceeding was unusual for a southern trial of a black in the 1920s in that a serious attempt was made by Manning's lawyers to prove he was innocent. The state, which relied upon Manning's testimony in Williams' trial, now called him a "mean Negro" who committed the murders to avoid prosecution for peonage. The defense countered that Manning feared for his and his family's lives and was forced to commit the murders by Williams. As in the Williams trial, the jury was all white. The entire proceeding lasted only two days, and it took the jury a mere 40 minutes to find Manning guilty. Still, in light of the attitudes at the time in the South, the defense was successful because this jury, too, recommended life imprisonment instead of death.

Manning died in prison of tuberculosis in 1927. Williams was killed four years later in an accident at the state penitentiary in Milledgeville, Georgia. During the 1920s, encouraged by Williams' conviction, a number of state and federal prosecutors successfully tried peonage cases in Georgia and the rest of the South.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Daniel, Pete. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901-1969. UJrbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Freeman, Gregory. A. Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves. Chicago: Chicago Review Press and Lawrence Hill Books, 1999.

Grant, Donald L. The Way It Was in the South: The Black Experience in Georgia. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921 - Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years, Murdering The "evidence" Of Peonage, Southern Peonage Draws National Attention