What’s Wrong with Justice in Wrightsville

What’s Wrong with Justice in Wrightsville

By Ron Taylor

Vol. 2, No. 8, 1980, pp. 22-24

Johnson County Sheriff Roland Attaway keeps two microphones dangling from the roof outside his office in Wrightsville, Georgia, for the purpose of tape recording his critics. The last few months, he has not liked what he has heard. Moreover, the criticism has made it difficult for him to run his county the way he is accustomed to running it. A host of “outside agitators,” liberal lawyers and nosy newsmen have poked fun at his habit of arresting people without charging them with anything.

In the last roundup, following sniper fire in a Black section of that racially troubled town, Attaway managed to nab at least 38 suspects (he never seemed to know just how many himself) and succeeded in getting two leaders of the Black protest there indicted on a host of curious charges that included inciting a riot that apparently his deputies helped start. During the past few months, Blacks and Whites in Wrightsville have scuffled on the courthouse lawn; a little girl, a woman and a policeman have been wounded, and every extremist group in Georgia, left and right, has shown its colors there. The miracle, say those who have watched the painful developments, is that nobody has been killed.

Wrightsville is an anachronism of the most disturbing kind. All the tired marches and all the old songs serve up reminders of hopes still unfulfilled, of how far we have not come. Wrightsville is not Miami, not the ash and mutilation of a decade just begun. It is not Greensboro, North Carolina, not the ugly clash of intransigent ideologies sticking up like the tip of some awful polarization freezing inside America’s frustrated foundation. Instead, Wrightsville hangs at the damaged roots of all that did not grow after the sixties.

It is a mean little town, this South Central Georgia farming village of barely 2,000 people at the seat of a county hardly much

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bigger, holding 7,000 people altogether. Almost daily, when the tensions are properly dangerous, a White mob gathers outside the courthouse, a gang of loafers come to complain about loafers and to skip pebbles and shout threats at journalists. Why have we come, they ask. And the temptation is precariously great to tell them.

Wrightsville is depressingly similar to most other rural Deep South towns that sit just beyond somewhere, not far from nowhere. It is far enough away from the reconstructed Southern mainstream to practice its peculiar standards of justice, but close enough to cause embarassment. That basically is why Wrightsville has become another landmark in the civil rights movement that has been declared dead quite prematurely, more than once in recent years. In June, while half the world is watching, Gov. George Busbee got news of Wrightsville in China”, some of its White citizens persist in practicing political voodoo.

It is a place where, as one former resident observes, a landowner is as apt as not to let slip his racial patronage by declaring, “This is my land, this is my tractor, and this is my nigger.” The half dozen families of property, among hundreds who have nothing, entrust the order of things to Sheriff Attaway, who has handled affairs to their liking for almost 20 years. Until the Rev. E.J. Wilson came to town wearing a brass cross around his neck and his social conscience on his shoulder, nobody questioned how Attaway executed his mandate.

To those who don’t have to deal with his law-and-order eccentricities, Sheriff Attaway is a hard man not to like. There is a sophisticated shyness about the man, not the sort of gladhanding, good-old-boy deception one often finds in boondock counties. And he has an open streak of human vanity. He keeps a bottle of Grecian Formula 9 hair dye on his desk and absolutely refuses to tell his age (around 63, by most calculations). And he can boast legitimately that through the years he has kept his county almost free of violent crime. How he apparently has managed to do that is what disturbs some people.

During the sixties, Attaway was the constant target of civil rights complaints, and in one publicized incident, he roughed up a Black teenager who had been drinking at a water fountain that had once been for Whites only. He has been known to come knocking on a citizen’s door for the mere collection of a debt some merchant had complained of.

So Black residents along South Valley Street were not especially surprised to hear Attaway and his deputies pounding on their doors the night violence erupted again in Wrightsville in mid-May. He showed up at Dearest Davis’ front door wearing a black riot helmet and holding a shotgun. He ordered everybody out on the porch, including 2-year-old James Eddie Wilson, who, at his mother’s prompting, does a squealy imitation of the sheriff’s angry command, “Get down off that bed!” Attaway and his deputies hauled away Mrs. Davis; a neighbor and two teenage girls. The Rev. Wilson and John Martin, local president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, already had been arrested that evening, as had been a group of people meeting at Wilson’s church, which Attaway’s deputies stormed with pointing guns.

Within the next two days. it would become abundantly clear that Attaway’s roundup had not achieved one important purpose: determining who fired the shots that left one woman seriously wounded and a policeman grazed and sent bullets whizzing by volunteer firemen attempting to put out a blaze set by arsonists at a South Valley cafe. Instead, Attaway wove a more bizarre case.

The sheriff spent much of the next day behind closed doors, plotting his strategy and fending off questions from reporters and lawyers alike as to just how many had been arrested (the count ranged from 25 to 44 before Attaway settled briefly on 38) and just what they were being charged with (Attaway changed the charges, too). Meanwhile, prisoners were shuttled in and out. Some new ones were brought in for questioning; some that had been held were quietly released without explanation. At one point, Reber Boult, an activist lawyer from Atlanta, attempted to question the Rev. Cornelius Horton, who was sitting inside a police car awaiting transport to a hospital for needed insulin he had been denied since his arrest hours earlier. Boult was shoved aside by an officer. Horton, whose car had been demolished during the first burst of violence in April, was one of the last prisoners released. He said he was never told what he was being held for.

By the second day, only three people remained behind bars; Wilson and Martin, the two leaders of the movement in

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Wrightsville, and Boult. Boult was wrestled to a cell by Attaway and a policeman after protesting Attaway’s accusation that he had interfered with an officer in trying to talk with his client. Attaway ordered witnessing lawyers out of his office and slammed the door in the face of baffled newsmen.

By the time the preliminary hearing got under way that afternoon, it was clear Attaway had achieved at least one of his aims. Wilson and Martin, the sheriff’s arch-nemeses, would have to stand before the bar of Wrightsville justice for all the grief they had caused the sheriff.

Wilson had been giving Attaway headaches since he arrived in town last autumn to pastor the Neeler Chapel AME Church. Wilson had earned his civil rights stripes back in 1961 during lunch-counter sit-ins in Albany, Georgia. As a minister in Hancock County, he worked briefly with the late John McCowan, the controversial Black leader who brought Black-majority rule to Hancock. When he got to Wrightsville, Wilson’s practiced eye told him that Blacks were not getting a fair shake. He began picketing, often alone, for more jobs for Blacks at a local supermarket. As the protest grew, so did the tension. When Wilson and Martin would lead their followers to the courthouse steps, a White mob usually waited for them to shout jeers and taunts reminiscent of the ugly days of Selma and Birmingham. The two sides clashed bitterly the night of April 8. Several Blacks were beaten, and reporters on the scene say deputies and policemen were eager participants.

It was that disturbance—not the more recent sniper incident—that Attaway finally decided to try to pin on Wilson and Martin more than a month later. Actually, not even the two’s lawyers, led by State Rep. William Randall, whose father helped drive the mule-drawn wagon during the original Poor People’s March on Washington, knew what the charges were until Attaway handed them the list just before the hearing.

One of the charges was that of obstruction of justice, involving some convoluted quarrel in the sheriff’s office over a woman’s role in a traffic accident, and another accused the pair of criminal defamation, alleging that during one of the rallies under Attaway’s microphones, they had called the sheriff a “lying bastard”. Testifying to that charge with a sense of outrage was Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Harold Moorman, who said he reported the cursing to Attaway, his close friend of 17 years.

More to the point were a series of inciting to riot charges. Two of the incidents cited actually were demonstrations that resulted in no rioting at all. Witness after prosecution witness conceded that neither Wilson nor Martin had advocated physical violence, even on the day of the melee.

Hearing the case was State Court Judge Joe W. Rowland of Johnson County, one of several local officials said to owe his job to the considerable influence of Sheriff Attaway. Rowland listened patiently to the defense attorneys’ repeated arguments that testimony had failed to establish that Wilson and Martin had provoked a breach of the peace, one of the principle criteria for letting such a charge stand. With the testy explanation that he didn’t have to explain his reasons, Rowland bound over Wilson and Martin to the grand jury, a vastly White body that also picks the county school board. Two weeks later, they indicted Wilson and Martin.

Attaway has stated publicly that he hopes to see the two protest leaders go to prison, but, more likely, the mysteries of Wrightsville justice will have to be unraveled by the federal courts before the issue is resolved. Meanwhile, the little town rests uneasily in its time warp.

Ron Taylor is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal.