Report From Albany, Ga.

A Harvard Law Student Writes About The Recent Trial Of A Local Negro

Editors note: The difficulties encountered this summer by John Perdew, a Harvard senior working on a SNCC veter registration drive in Albany, Ga., have served to bring home to the Harvard community the extraordinary obstacles facing the civil rights effort in the south. The following two-part report of the trial of a Negro near Albany express in greater detail the farce that the State of Georgia has made of the law. The fact that the defendant had dared sue the Sheriff last spring perhaps explains, although not justifies the viciousness of the county officials.

The writer, a second year student at the Harvard Law School, is working this summer as an assistant to C. B. King, a Negro civil rights lawyer in Albany. She reports that her association with King has aroused considerable hostility among the townspeople, as they apparently suspected him of having relations with her, a white woman.

On Monday, July 22, Charlie Ware stood trial on the first of three criminal indictments brought against him. The scene was the tiny city of Newton, located in Baker County, Georgia. This slight, almost fragile Negro man of about 45 faced charges of being drunk on the public highway, drunkenness on a ball park, and assault with intent to murder the Sheriff of Baker County, L. Warren Johnson. It was an historical setting. For it was here that former Sheriff Claude Screws twenty years ago dragged another Negro, Bobby Hall, by the bumper of his car into the next county and then around the same courthouse. Stopping at the Artesian well located at the eastern edge of the courthouse, Screws beat Hall to death.

History intruded into this case. Two of the key figures in the trial, Sheriff Johnson and Frank Jones, had been deputies under Screws, and at least one of them participated in the murder. And it was in this courtroom that two years ago a white man and his wife and a Negro friend were dragged over benches and out of the courtroom, as the same judge sat passively by.

But this case itself made history, for on Friday, although finding Ware guilty, the jury sentenced him to a maximum of five years and a minimum of three, five years less than the statuatory limit. They also returned a recommendation for mercy, asking the court to treat the felony as a misdemeanor in passing sentence. The judge refused the recommendation, sentencing him to three to five years on the charge of assault with intent to murder, and to 12 months on the charge of drunkenness on the ball park. On the previous Monday, another jury had found Charlie Ware guilty of being drunk on the public highway, and the judge in that matter sentenced him to a fine of $100 or one year.


Verdict Unexpected

The verdict of the jury was unexpected, and in the context of Baker county and the whole of Southwest Georgia, unusual. These 12 Georgia Crackers, most of whom were farmers, most of whom subscribed to no newspaper, all of whom had little if any education, have lived in a world in which brutality to Negroes is not merely legend but reality. Baker county is a name that brings shudders of horror to Negroes fortunate enough to live elsewhere. To them it is a jungle, a hell, in which the white man is king of nothing except his color and his gun. Negroes, surprisingly, outnumber the whites by almost a three to two margin, but their standard of living is extremely low. Most are croppers or tenants on large plantations owned primarily by persons living in the North who came South to shoot quail in the winter. The Negroes are given a two-room shack, paid about $20 a week, and are at the constant beck and call of the boss man. Eking out a living becomes an overwhelming problem to these people, especially in the face of incessant harrassment and oppression, if not actual violence, by the whites. Although a hundred years have passed since the Civil War, the Negro is virtually a slave in Baker County. It cannot be said, however, that the whites are free. Feeding on sadism, glorying in the license their color allows, they lead a depraved existence. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty is their lot as well.

It was in this context that Charlie Ware stood trial. But times had changed, if only grudgingly, and with the ever-present possibility that the barbarism in its crude and original form would return.

The courtroom was filled on the first day. Whites crowded the downstairs section, chomping on wads of tobacco and spitting the juice into antebellum spittoons or, if these weren't available, on the floor. The odor of rank whiskey permeated the place. The faces were hard and mean, with thin, sharp noses, suspicious, light-colored eyes, leathery red necks. Above, in the balcony reserved for Negroes, commonly called the "buzard's roost," it was quiet, except for the occasional crying of a baby. Located on the second floor of the grotesque courthouse, which is made of red Geogia clay, the courtroom was large but the air hung still. Around the walls and the ceiling the paint had long since peeled, leaving brown gashes. The judge sat in a creaking chair under a sign, slightly askew, that read "keep smiling." An American flag stood at his right and four fans hung from the ceiling. Only three worked, adding a strange accompaniment to the proceedings. The judge, with gray hair and a beaked nose, poured ice water continually into a glass, had the segregationist Albany Herald brought to him each day at about 3 P.M. which he diligently read for the following hour. Before making any pronouncement he shifted the tobacco in his mouth, spat, and then spoke in a creaking inaudible voice, that even counsel sitting in front of him had to strain to hear.

Attorneys Charge Bias

The charge on Monday was for drunkenness on the public highway. The attorneys for the defendant, Donald L. Hollowell of Atlanta, and C.B. King of Albany, Georgia, both Negroes, moved immediately to quash the indictment on grounds that the grand jury was and had always been, completely white. They charged that in the selection of the grand jury a policy of systematic exclusion of Negroes had been pursued. The attornies examined the tax collector, a Mr. Hudson, with withered hands and bird-like expression, who co-operatively gave them the information about the tax rolls. He testified that jurors are selected from the list of owners of either real property or personalty, but that whites are listed in front of the tax book, and Negroes in the back on yellow pages. Then the clerk of the court, Leslie Bush, a thin man with brush hair cut, tried to sidestep the emerging evidence that an "N" was placed after Negroes on the jury lists. Except he called them "niggers" and Atty. Hollowell requested the court to reprimand the witness for using improper language. The court refused and Bush declared that he had been using the word all his life and Hollowell had been the only Negro to object. Although Bush had just signed an affidavit submitted to him by the defense attorneys which said that he knew some upright, intelligent Negroes who owned property in Baker County, when asked this question on the stand he balked. Several Negroes were called to testify that they had never seen a Negro on the grand jury. Even the Sheriff, L. Warren Johnson, a huge hulking man weighing about 246 pounds and standing about six feet three inches tall was called to the stand. With his gray hair thinning away from his face, his glasses gave him no look of a scholar, but merely compounded the oafish quality of his features. The Sheriff agreed that no Negroes appear on grand juries in Baker County, but he was not willing to admit that any Negroes were upright and intelligent. The motion to quash the indictment was denied, and the motion attacking the array of jurors for the reason that Negroes had been systematically excluded was similarly denied.

Jury Called

The jury panel was called, and twenty two men stood up and filtered to the front of the room, some in overalls, most in ill-fitting dungarees or khaki pants. The last two men called were Negroes, and as their steps could be heard clambering down from the buzzards' roost, the people in the audience turned to one another with smiles. The strategy was clever; they intended to call one Negro for each twelve whites so as to vitiate the constitutional objection to the selection of jurors. There was no chance to test the tactic, because the defense had used its seven strikes and the twelve men had been chosen before the names of the Negroes had been reached.

The Sheriff's brother was called to the stand. Ben Johnson, the deputy sheriff said he had noticed a car which was going very slowly, an indication to him that something must be wrong. As he approached the car and asked the driver, John Hayes, for his license, he alleged that Charlie Ware, who appeared to him to be very, very drunk, called out something like "God damn the Law and you too." Under the Georgia statute dealing with public drunkenness, any person who displays his drunkenness in a public place by using vile language or violent discourse is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Charlie Ware's testimony and that of the two persons accompanying him in the car differed substantially. Yes, they probably had been going slowly, for Newton is a "speed trap" and Negroes are arrested and fined heavily for "speeding" or drunken driving when they are crawling along the road or even absolutely sober. But the three Negroes testified that Ware was sound asleep at the time that the car was stopped.