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The Trial of John S. Williams
How America has and hasn't changed.
Happy Monday to all my beautiful babies. When I write these posts, I try not to focus on the stories that are more inside baseball, typical Washington stories that are mostly forgotten in a news cycle (but sometimes even I can’t resist). To that end, there was really only one story in the news this week: Derek Chauvin is guilty.
So, a few quick notes before I get into the meaning behind the title of this week’s Jackal.
I did a fast, first reaction podcast1 with my close and good friends Beth and Adam Kail. Two corrections though: First, I said that Chauvin’s sentencing would take place in two weeks, when in reality it’s two months. Second, I also said Chauvin would not likely get the full sentencing for the crimes he was convicted on. I am not sure how likely that is anymore given the rumors that Minnesota prosecutors are looking to argue he should receive harsher sentencing than the guidelines suggest (called an “upward departure” in legal talk). It will ultimately be the judge’s call.
There has been some talk about the judge’s comments regarding Maxine Waters and a possible appeal by Chauvin. Conservatives have highlighted his comments and said that this means Chauvin will get a new trial after an appeal. While the likelihood of this happening is not quite 0%, it’s about 0.1%. In that moment, the judge was essentially stating that Chauvin’s attorneys had successfully raised an “issue” for appeal. While that means his team will have something to appeal on, it does not mean it will be successful. Ken White described it this way: Imagine your grandmother telling you that you look nice today. While you can accept that as a compliment from your grandma, you should not take it to mean that you look like Brad Pitt. In this case, the judge is your grandma.
So, who is John S. Williams? Williams was a Southern plantation owner in Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Just after the Civil War, former slave states passed a series of “Black Laws” that were intended to make life difficult for newly freed black men and women. Some of them required all men to be employed, which means any black man found to be unemployed or “loitering” could be arrested and thrown in jail. Wealthy plantation owners would spring black men out of jail on the condition that they would work to pay off their bail money. This was a practice called peonage, and even though it was officially outlawed in 1867, it was regularly practiced throughout the South because federal and local governments didn’t punish it (in fact, many local governments helped enable it). So, the practice continued for about 50 years.
Williams himself was a practitioner. He would go down to the local jail, bail out black men, and pay them low wages (reportedly somewhere around 35 cents a year), and essentially continue the practice of slavery long after it had been banned. The conditions on the plantations were horrible, with many peons being worked to death. Their debt to their owners also prevented them from leaving the farms, and sometimes local governments even sided with the plantation owners to bring back escaped peons.
One of Williams’s peons, Gus Chapman, escaped the horrific conditions on the plantation and went to the local Bureau of Investigation (what the FBI was called back then) with complaints about Williams. They sent two federal agents to interview him, but he denied that he was practicing peonage. The agents left and later would admit they had no real intention to follow up on the investigation because claims of peonage were not taken seriously in the South.
That was until Williams decided to cover up his crime. He went to his head peon, Clyde Manning, and told him they would have to get rid of the “evidence.” So, Manning and Williams murdered eleven other peons and got rid of the bodies (Manning had grown up on the Williams plantation with his wife and children, and Williams threatened their lives if Manning didn’t help him kill the other slaves). Word about Williams eventually got out and the Bureau of Investigation prosecuted him, using Manning as their star witness. Williams’s trial drew national attention. It began on April 5, 1921, and Williams was found guilty of 11 murders on on April 9, 1921. It is a seminal case in American history, because it marked the beginning of the end of peonage. At the time, no white man in the South had been convicted of killing a black man since Reconstruction, despite the fact that it occurred on the regular.
Williams’s conviction was a huge shift in American history. It happened 100 years ago in the same month as the trial of Derek Chauvin, who is one of the rare police officers found guilty of murdering a black man. Following Chauvin’s conviction, there was a lot of pushback on the idea that this was “justice,” since so much more still needs to be done in reforming policing. But in the same way that Williams’s conviction (obviously) wasn’t the end of racism in the United States, it was certainly justice in that particular trial. Chauvin’s conviction literally is justice, because it is the system working as it should to punish a man guilty of murder.
It does not mean that we’ve “arrived” or that America’s work combatting racism is finished, but it is an incredibly important step and one that is not dissimilar from Williams’s conviction. The ongoing struggle is probably best highlighted by the fact that Williams’s trial has been basically ignored for 100 years. Peonage - the continuation of slavery in the South for roughly 50 years after the 13th Amendment - is left out of most high school textbooks. The trial doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. And that is why I think the Chauvin trial deserves the focus of basically an entire Jackal entry on its own: There will surely be other stories you read this week or talk about with your friends, but you are going to be telling your kids about where you were when Chauvin was convicted. It is that important.
Some should-reads: Biden is the first President to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. Huge, huge news. Cameron Peters has a good write-up on its significance.
Laura Field has an incredible piece on how the Right learned to stop worrying and just love conspiracies.
Have a great week my habibis. Pic this week is how I spent my time writing the Jackal. It’s beautiful in Denver and Hot David Summer is just beginning.
We talked about the Williams story in the podcast if you want to listen to an audio version of this post! Also, in their latest episode, Adam and Beth talk about a topic I am obsessed with: Racism and infrastructure. As someone who grew up on Long Island in the shadow of Robert Moses, I am totally fascinated. You can listen to that episode here.