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John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921

Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years, Murdering The "evidence" Of Peonage, Southern Peonage Draws National Attention

Defendants: John S. Williams and Clyde Manning
Crime Charged: Murder
Defense Attorneys: Williams: Greene F. Johnson, W. H. Key, and C. C. King; Manning: E. Marvin Underwood, A. D. Meadows
Prosecuting Attorneys: A. M. Brand, William M. Howard, Graham Wright
Judge: John B. Hutcheson
Place: Covington, Georgia
Dates of Trials: April 5-9, 1921 (Williams); May 30-1, 1921 (Manning)
Verdicts: Williams: guilty; Manning: guilty
Sentences: Williams: life imprisonment; Manning: life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Technically, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution freed over four million black slaves. In a sense, slavery in the United States did not end in 1865, but merely took other forms. For example, there was the system of "peonage" whereby blacks were held in servitude until they worked off their debts. This use of "peons" thrived throughout the South for over five decades and it did not start to decline until the brutal murder of 11 men in 1921.

After the Civil War, southern states adopted a series of laws known as the "Black Codes." These statutes required the former slaves to have jobs; unemployment meant arrest and imprisonment for vagrancy or loitering. A local farmer, who would be entitled to his labor until the sum was worked off, paid the black's fine after he as jailed. The peons lived on their employer's farm and worked long hours at hard labor while receiving extremely low or nonexistent wages. Few ever earned enough to pay off what they owed; for most, peonage equaled a lifetime of hardship and toil. Harsh punishment, including severe beatings, whippings, and even death, were common if the workers did not perform up to their employers' expectations or if they committed some real or imagined act of disobedience. Often, the workers were so scared of the farmers that they assisted in, or actually carried out, the tortures and murders lest the same fate befall them. If a black ran away, he was hunted down and returned to whatever punishment awaited him.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940