Self-Defense Alibis and the Myth of Black Criminality

| By Mia Kaminsky |

Maceo Snipes was a proud veteran who had recently returned home to Taylor County, Georgia, after risking his life fighting for his country in New Guinea during World War II. He thought he deserved to cast his ballot in the Georgia gubernatorial election of July 17, 1946. Despite repeated public threats from the Ku Klux Klan that the first black person to vote would be punished, Snipes voted and became the first and only African American in Taylor County, Georgia, to participate in the primary.[1] Even after the 1946 King v. Chapman case, which made it illegal for Georgia’s primary elections to bar black people from voting, blacks such as Snipes who dared to vote were “marked for retaliation” by the campaign’s frontrunner, white supremacist Eugene Talmadge.[2] One politically powerful family, the Coopers, who lived in the same community as Snipes, strongly supported Talmadge. The Cooper family had raised a relative who had been orphaned, Edward Williamson.[3] A military veteran like Snipes, Edward Williamson came to Snipes’s home and shot and killed him on July 18, the day after the election.

In his trial, Williamson stated that he and a friend, Lynwood Harvey, drove to the Snipes home to collect a $10 debt Snipes owed him. According to Williamson, Snipes refused an offer to pay off the debt by working at Harvey’s sawmill, and he pulled out a white-handled pocketknife. Williamson said that, to defend himself, he fired two—other witnesses say three—shots from .32-caliber pistol. Notably, Williamson testified to shooting Snipes because Snipes owed him $10, but when doctors stripped Snipes at the Negro Hospital in Butler, they found $40 in his pocket. Lulu Snipes, Maceo Snipes’s mother, denied that Maceo Snipes would ever have a debt; he received a one-time government bonus of $400 and was working for her on their 150-acre family farm. Maceo Snipes and his family had painstakingly worked for generations from sharecroppers to landowners, turning the farm into a profitable business.[4] Unlike Williamson, Snipes had no violence in his past, he was active in the Baptist Church, and he had no criminal record.[5]

Two years after Snipes’s murder, a strikingly similar crime occurred. Isaiah Nixon, a 28-year-old, 5’9”, 160-pound farmer, and an amiable husband and father of six, voted in the Democratic primary election in Montgomery County. Two brothers who had known Nixon his whole life—Jim Johnson, 32, a married logger, and Johnnie Johnson, a 23-year-old logger with a gap between his teeth, drove to Nixon’s farmhouse shortly after Nixon had voted.[6] At dusk on September 8, 1948, the white brothers shot and killed Nixon in his yard.

On trial for the murder of Nixon, Jim Johnson successfully argued that Nixon drew a knife on him and Johnson “had to kill him.” Nixon’s wife, Sallie, testified that her husband had no knife on him when Johnson killed him and had never before been in any trouble with the law.[7] Johnson’s stated recollection conflicted with the testimony given by Nixon’s family and friends, and, among other evidence, Nixon actually had a long, amicable friendship with the brothers.

Most white men in Georgia who lynched or shot blacks had “almost complete immunity from punishment,” and the outcome of the Johnson and Williamson cases reflect that custom.[8] In peculiarly similar stories, both Williamson and the Johnson brothers claimed that a black man had approached them with a knife, and there was no choice but to shoot him multiple times. The unconvincing defenses amounted to a standard alibi in Southern courts. White men who killed blacks got away with murder.[9]

It is likely that Williamson and the Johnson brothers knew that the racial climate of the Jim Crow South would allow white men to get off scot-free. By claiming self-defense, Williamson and the Johnson brothers effectively enabled the all-white jury to avoid faulting them for the two murders. Self-defense alibis rely almost entirely on the credibility of witnesses and circumstantial evidence. If those witnesses were black, and if complicit police falsified evidence, then an all-white jury customarily sided with the white defendant.[10] White jurors overvalued the interests of a white defendant and undervalued the interests of a black victim. Lethal self-defense claims were a right “only saved for white masculinity.”[11] In order to establish self-defense, the accused must show a real threat of harm, yet the Southern criminal justice system consistently failed to hold perpetrators accountable for their attacks.[12]

White supremacists like Williamson and the Johnson brothers veiled their racist incentives with “carefully professionalized rhetoric of black criminality.”[13] Racism made it easy to disprove culpability in court, not only going unpunished in Snipes’s and Nixon’s murder trials but actually being lauded. White supremacists succeeded in disguising themselves as vigilantes protecting their communities against black criminality, circumventing justice for decades.[14]  The trial for the death of Maceo Snipes took place on July 22, 1946. A coroner’s jury, presumably made up of only white men as was customary for the time, acquitted Williamson, deeming “the ballots and bullets” not connected.[15] According to FBI and Department of Justice documents, Williamson successfully argued that he acted in self-defense. The coroner later attributed Snipes’s death to “gun shots constituting a clumsily inefficient method of murder.”[16]

Harvey, the friend who accompanied Williamson, confirmed all of Williamson’s testimony, except Harvey denied Williamson’s claim that he warned Snipes to back away; Harvey stated that Snipes actually stepped back, not forward, before Williamson shot him. Another unnamed source stated that Snipes had started walking back to his house when Williamson pulled out his gun, told Snipes not to run, and shot him.[17] In September 1946, the Department of Justice told the FBI to close the investigation, as evidence indicated “the shooting arose from a personal difference unrelated to the act of voting.”[18] Snipes’s family suffered profoundly, but his murderer suffered only “the slight inconvenience and annoyance of having to drop into the courthouse where the coroner’s jury walked them right out again, bloodstained but free.”[19]

On November 4, 1948, a trial jury in the Superior Court of Montgomery acquitted Jim Johnson in the murder of Nixon after he claimed he killed Nixon in self-defense.[20] According to Judge Eschol Graham, Jim Johnson supposedly had the stronger case of the two brothers; after Jim was found not guilty, the case against Johnnie Johnson was nol prossed. During the two-hour trial, Sallie Nixon and Rosa Brown, a friend, were both on the witness stand for only fifteen minutes each. With a black victim, black witnesses, a white defendant, and an all-white jury, it came as no surprise that Johnson’s claim, a standard alibi in the South, reigned supreme over the testimonies of Sallie Nixon and Rosa Brown.[21]

Johnson was clever to use this alibi, as it easily swayed the court, especially since blacks were excluded from juries. The continuous exclusion of blacks from juries ensured that white supremacists prevailed as the Southern criminal justice system remained color conscious.[22] In 1880, in Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the practice of keeping juries white-only unconstitutional, as it violated the 14th amendment. Then, whites found ways to discriminate without violating federal law. For blacks such as Snipes and Nixon, this meant they had no legal recourse. If accused of a crime, the jury included no peers.[23] Racism permeated the legal system of the South so intricately that whites on juries argued they were “doing what was needed as white men to protect the southern way of life from the forces that threatened to destroy it.”[24]

Those so called “forces that threatened to destroy” Jim Crow—Snipes and Nixon, men who simply wanted to vote in their local elections—both died days after being shot, leaving behind traumatized families. Snipes succumbed to his injuries July 20, 1946, after a white physician claimed the hospital had “no black blood” available.[25] Notified only after Snipes’s death, the sheriff of Taylor County did not bother to corroborate Williamson’s claims.[26] On Friday, September 10, 1948, Nixon died in the hospital from gunshot wounds that penetrated his kidney, small intestine, stomach, and liver.[27]

The racism of Jim Crow and the repeated utilization of a nonsensical, unconvincing self-defense argument to justify vicious murders caused the Snipes, Nixon, and other families to live in perpetual fear after the murder of their beloved family members. The Nixon family relocated to Jacksonville, Florida, after Sallie Nixon was left with no means to support herself or her six children, and the Snipes’s extended family fled to Ohio.[28] Before leaving their home in Taylor County, the Snipes family tried to bury Maceo Snipes in a grave, prompting death threats. The white citizens of Taylor County wrote the epitaph: “Pass the word to them God-damned niggers that if they try to bury that God-damned votin’ nigger in that nigger cemetery or try to do any preachin’ about him, they’d better have graves ready for the whole God-damned Snipes family.”[29] On the day set for the funeral, a barricade of Georgia state troopers erected roadblocks leading to the Snipes home and the little Negro Baptist Church. The family never discovered where his body had been laid to rest.[30]        The Southern criminal justice system rarely held white perpetrators accountable for violent crime against blacks. Many institutions subordinated blacks, including legal officials and police officers intent on preserving the Jim Crow laws. Often, these people of authority were unwilling to bring charges against white perpetrators and performed lackluster investigations and prosecutions. The federal government rarely took action so as not to usurp state authority, even after the state failed to hold culprits liable. Virginia Durr described the Jim Crow era as one of “murder without penalty, murder without pain, and the victims get no sympathy…”[31]

Protests following the brutal killings of Snipes and Nixon. After they subsided, white murderers invoked self-defense alibis in court to justify white men ready to murder anyone who disputed Jim Crow laws. The self-defense alibi succeeded even in the murder of a white man who defended a black girl. In 1965, white supremacist Tom Coleman shot and killed civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels. Coleman had aimed his gun at a young black girl, but Daniels shielded her; the gunshot nearly tore his body in half.[32] Coleman’s defense team claimed Daniels had carried a knife, although eight black witnesses testified to the contrary. Once again, a jury quickly acquitted a white murderer who claimed that he shot in self-defense. Coleman’s defense team told the jury that Coleman was just “protecting all of us” and that the South “needed more men like him, men with great hearts, strong minds, pure souls, and ready hands.”[33]  Part of the success of the self-defense alibi can be attributed to the association of blacks with criminality. The root of this phenomenon dates back to slavery: Slaves were assumed to be inherently violent and immoral, which justified their white masters’ exertion of a “civilizing” influence through torture, beatings, and lynchings. People today may think of slavery and Jim Crow lynchings as shameful, but the idea of innate black criminality lives on to present day in many white imaginations as it did in the time of Snipes and Nixon.

The perception of blacks as violent allowed for defendants claiming self-defense to use race to circumvent responsibility. The self-defense claim “established virtually irrefutable legal justification for the use of deadly force” and civilians used “plastic” definitions of self-defense to secure exonerations and acquittals.[34] In Georgia, the criminal justice system protected the prerogatives of slavery and white racial domination for over a century. Under Jim Crow, the South committed the highest levels of lynching and extralegal mob violence in the nation’s history; Georgia was one of the states “most deeply implicated in this racial reign of terror.”[35]

It’s possible for white people to commit a crime without altering the way in which society views the white race. Yet when blacks violate the law, consequences can follow for the entire race. The myth of black criminality can also appear within black communities: in a national survey, the majority of whites and blacks agreed that “blacks are aggressive or violent,” and other research reveals that the entire public thinks black people commit a higher percentage of crime than they do.[36] As a proportion of the population, whites commit the majority of crimes in the United States, yet the stereotype of black criminality has dominated our society since before the killing of Nixon and Snipes.

Snipes and Nixon did not die in vain. Their memories live on in the American struggle against injustice and prejudice. Racial bigotry may remain but the murderers of Nixon and Snipes would not have gotten off easily today. Therein lies signs of progress.

[1] Tuck, Stephen G. N., Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia, 1940-1980. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003, 71.

[2] Newton, Michael, Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases, 1934-1970, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016, 9.; Dan Barry, “Killing and Segregated Plaque Divide Town,” The New York Times, 2007.

[3] Barry, “Killing and Segregated Plaque Divide Town;” Report on Maceo Snipes from the Southern Regional Council, filed at the Atlanta University Centers Civil Rights Archives at Robert Woodruff Library, July 20, 1946.

[4] Sprigle, Ray, In the Land of Jim Crow. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949, 97.

[5] Report on Maceo Snipes from the Southern Regional Council.

[6] Erwin, Thomas, “Johnnie Johnson; Thomas Wilkes; Claude Sharp, Jim A. Johnson; Dover V. Carter, Victim; Isaiah Nixon, Victim”, September 13, 1948, FBI Files, 9-10.

[7] Alt, Rudolph A., “Johnnie Johnson, Jim A. Johnson, Isaiah Nixon-Victim,” April 4, 1949, FBI Files, 144.

[8] Weymouth, F. W., Chairman Legislative Committee, Santa Clara County Branch NAACP, to President Harry S. Truman, September 23, 1948, FBI Files, 198.

[9] “Pair Acquitted in Fatal Shooting of Alston Voter,” Atlanta Daily World, November 5, 1948, 1.

[10] Klarman, Michael J., From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Print. 281.

[11] Light, Caroline E., Stand Your Ground: a History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2017, 13.

[12] “Assault and Battery Defenses.” Findlaw. Thomas Reuters, 2017. Web.

[13] Schultz, Mark, “The Jim Crow Routine: Everyday Performances of Race, Civil Rights, and Segregation in Mississippi by Stephen A. Berrey (review).” Journal of Southern History 82, no. 3 (2016): 700-701

[14] Light, Stand Your Ground, 14.

[15] “Bullets, Vote Not Connected in Taylor Death,” The Atlanta Constitution, July 20, 1946, 4.

[16] Sprigle, In the Land of Jim Crow, 96.

[17] Fitzgerald, Paige M., Deputy Chief in Chicago of Cold Case Initiative, to Family of Maceo Snipes, April 12, 2010, US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 2.

[18] “Maceo Snipes-Notice to Close File.” The United States Department of Justice. US Department of Justice, July 18, 1946.

[19] Sprigle, In the Land of Jim Crow, 95.

[20] Greene, Bruce B., “Johnnie Johnson, Jim A. Johnson, Isaiah Nixon-Victim”, March 28, 1949, FBI Files, 149.

[21] “Pair Acquitted in Fatal Shooting of Alston Voter,” Atlanta Daily World, 1.

[22] Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, 279.

[23] Tafari, Tshai, “The Supreme Court.” The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow. Public Broadcasting Service.

[24] Romano, Renee C., Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2014, 43.

[25] Newton, Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases, 9

[26] Report on Maceo Snipes from the Southern Regional Council.

[27] Death Certificate for Isaiah Nixon, September 1948, Georgia Department State of Health.

[28] Alt, “Johnnie Johnson, Jim A. Johnson, Isaiah Nixon-Victim,” FBI Files, 144.

[29] Sprigle, In the Land of Jim Crow, 92.

[30] Barry, “Killing and Segregated Plaque Divide Town.”

[31] Romano, Racial Reckoning, 51.

[32] Thomas Jr., Robert McG., “Thomas Coleman, 86, Dies; Killed Rights Worker in ’65.” The New York Times, June 22, 1997.

[33] Romano, Racial Reckoning, 60-61.

[34] Adler, Jeffrey S., “Cognitive Bias: Interracial Homicide in New Orleans, 1921–1945.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 43, no. 1 (2012): 43-61. (accessed April 22, 2017).

[35] McNair, Glenn, Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia’s Criminal Justice System. University of Virginia Press, 2009, 172.

[36] Bloom, Lisa, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.