In Pine Bluff, the 1947 landmark case of Wilkerson v. State put an end to the practice of excluding African Americans from juries, which had been ongoing since Reconstruction.
It all started on February 9, 1947, when off-duty Jefferson County special deputy sheriff George Cletus Bryant, his brother Archie Bryant, and C. W. Winston pursued and stopped two African American men, Albert Wilkerson and Willie Wilkerson, for allegedly passing their vehicle and speeding on the Cornerstone-Altheimer Highway.
A gunfight ensued; Willie Wilkerson was wounded, and Deputy Bryant and C. W. Winston died later from gunshot wounds. While he was in the custody of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, Albert signed a statement in which he admitted to shooting Deputy Bryant and C. W. Winston. Three days later, Judge T. G. Parham issued bench warrants for the arrest of Albert Wilkerson and Willie Wilkerson.
The case received extensive media coverage because the defense attorneys—William Harold Flowers, who was a leading figure in the civil rights movement in Arkansas in the 1940s, and Zephaniah Alexander Looby, a civil rights leader and attorney from Tennessee—directly attacked unfair and discriminatory Jim Crow laws and practices in open court.
The defense attorneys worked to ensure that their clients received a fair trial by a jury of their peers. On March 27, 1947, Flowers filed a motion to quash the all-white petit jury panel. Flowers argued that it was the practice of the Jury Commission of Jefferson County to exclude African Americans from the jury pool based upon race. The court testimonies of Jefferson County sheriff Garland Brewster and Jefferson County circuit clerk M. V. Mead supported Flowers’s argument.
Because Flowers had proven that the Jefferson County Jury Commission had excluded African Americans from jury service based upon race, Judge Parham believed that he had no choice but to follow the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding the ending of the practice of using all-white juries. Therefore, Parham quashed the all-white petit jury panel and ordered the selection of a new petit jury panel from thirty-four prospective jurors on March 31, 1947.
Twenty-one white men and thirteen black men, whose names and photographs were published on the front page of a local paper, were selected for the new jury pool. Although Flowers Looby filed a motion to quash the special panel of jurors, Judge Parham overruled the motion. Eleven white men and one black man were selected and sworn in for the Jefferson County Circuit Court’s petit jury.
Prosecutors Carleton Harris and M. L. Reinberger argued that the Wilkerson brothers had deliberately shot and killed Bryant and Winston without provocation. In contrast, Flowers and Looby argued that the defendants had fought back against a group of unknown, angry, and armed white men who had forced their car off the road.
The jury was deadlocked for two days. Eventually, the jury found Willie Wilkerson guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in state prison or convict farms. The jury found Albert Wilkerson guilty of second-degree murder and decided to let the court determine his sentence. The court sentenced Albert to 21 years in the state prison or convict farms.
In December 1947, the Supreme Court of Arkansas affirmed the convictions of Albert and Willie Wilkerson. In January 1948, Willie Wilkerson returned to the state prison system to begin serving his two-year sentence. Although both defendants were unhappy with their sentences, defense attorney Flowers was satisfied with the outcome of the trial. In a 1979 interview with the Pine Bluff Commercial, Flowers said that “the accused men were convicted, but neither of them was sentenced to death. At that time a black man who killed a white man could always expect to die.”
Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, CaseText.com
Image Credit: Arkansas State Archives