Season 1 / Episodes 9 & 10
In the early morning hours of May 6, 1960, Marvin Leonard Williams died in police custody at the former Faulkner County jail in Conway, Arkansas. He was arrested the night before – the same night his parents and siblings lost their home and everything they owned in a tornado.
Twenty-five years later, two officers were charged with murder after Marvin’s parents received new information regarding their son’s death. His younger brother, Ronnie Williams, went on a fact-finding mission to seek justice for his brother and get to the bottom of a 25-year cover-up.
“He had tremendous potential.”
Born to Johnny and Dee Dee Williams in the small community of Menifee, Arkansas, Marvin Leonard Williams packed a lot into his short 20 years. He graduated from high school around age 15 or 16 and enlisted in the Navy. After serving in the Navy, Marvin returned home and then joined the Army as a U.S. paratrooper. He and his wife, Bonnie, had a young child and were expecting their second when Marvin died tragically two months before his 21st birthday.
“Marvin had worth; he had value,” Ronnie said. “He had tremendous potential, and he didn’t get a chance to realize his potential.”
The Night that Changed Everything
In 1960, six years after Brown vs. Board of Education, many schools in the South were still segregated. Two Black schools – Pine Street School in the city of Conway (Faulkner County) and Conway County Training School in Menifee – had their proms on the same night: May 5, 1960.
Marvin and his friends gathered at the prom in Menifee. While there, the superintendent received a report of threatening weather in the area with the possibility of tornadoes, so he decided to end the prom early. Marvin’s friends wanted to go to the prom at Pine Street School in Conway, and Marvin offered to drive them. When they arrived, they learned that the Pine Street School administration made the same decision to halt the night’s festivities because of the weather.
While they were in Conway, Marvin and his friends decided to stop by the Sunset Café on nearby Markham Street, a popular hangout spot for the Black community. Two of his friends went inside the café while Marvin and another friend stayed in the car and slept.
The severe weather that cut the proms short spurred destructive tornadoes around central Arkansas later that night, including in the town of Menifee where Marvin’s parents and siblings lived. A tornado ravaged the Williams family’s home, blowing it 50 yards from its original location. Ronnie, who was seven at the time, suffered a head injury. A neighbor took him and his family to a hospital in nearby Morrilton.
“Our lives started to change in 1960,” Ronnie recalls.
The next evening while Ronnie was still recovering at the hospital, the Williams family received devastating news.
“A relative of my mother’s came and told us that Marvin was dead.”
They learned that Marvin was arrested for public intoxication on Markham Street and died while in police custody. According to police reports, Marvin slipped on the staircase in the Faulkner County Courthouse (the jail was housed on the top floor) and died after striking his head on the steps.
The Letter that Changed Everything
Twenty-five years after that fateful night, the Williams family received a letter that changed their lives once again. It’s author was a white man named Charles Hackney, who was an inmate at the Faulkner County jail the same night Marvin was admitted.
As he routinely did after work, Ronnie stopped by his parents’ house. His father, Johnny, showed him the letter.
“[Hackney] sent my dad a letter telling him that he could no longer live with himself. And he wanted Marvin’s family to know what happened to him. In essence, what he said was that he heard and could partially see officers striking my brother in the Faulkner County jail.”
Hackney’s letter was the start of the Williams family’s quest to investigate Marvin’s murder and bring charges against those responsible. Court documents say the coroner’s jury didn’t see an autopsy report in 1960, but they were told the cause of death was a concussion. So they concluded no foul play from the time Marvin was arrested until he died.
Unbeknownst to the Williams family, an autopsy report was conducted on Marvin in 1960. After a visit with the director of the Arkansas State Crime Lab 25 years after Marvin’s death, Ronnie uncovered two key findings: The first was that Marvin’s injuries were inconsistent with a fall. The second was that there was no alcohol in his bloodstream, which ruled out the claim of public intoxication.
The Murder Trial
After circulating a petition through a local chapter of the NAACP and alerting local and national media about his brother’s murder and subsequent cover-up, Ronnie, who was a state employee for the Arkansas Department of Education at the time, went to then-Governor Bill Clinton for additional assistance in bringing charges against the officers responsible for Marvin’s death.
“Were it not for his assistance, it would have been very, very difficult to have the case reopened,” Ronnie said.
Clinton appointed a prosecutor and a judge and funded the grand jury investigation. The officers were indicted on charges of murder in the first degree.
“The grand jury did its job behind closed doors. They examined the evidence, and they determined there was cause to indict those officers.”
Several months later, the criminal trial began. Despite the medical evidence, the officers were acquitted by an all-white jury. The trial was covered extensively by media outlets:
- AROUND THE NATION; Trial Opens in Arkansas Over Death in 1960
(The New York Times, Aug. 20, 1985)
- Inmate Says Two Others Did The Beating In 25-Year-Old Murder Trial
(The Associated Press, Aug. 22, 1985)
- Ex-Policemen Acquitted of Killing Black in 1960
(The New York Times, Sept. 5, 1985)
- Officers acquitted in 25-year-old murder
(United Press International, Sept. 5, 1985)
Ronnie attributes the officers’ acquittal to two reasons: racism and reputation.
“The defense attorneys went out of their way to disqualify every prospective black juror,” Ronnie said. “They did not want to get the black perspective.”
He added that the jury seemed to be more concerned with how the community would look after a guilty verdict than it was with getting justice for Marvin.
“It was almost as if we’ve got to protect the reputation of the community, and I guess they weighed that against the life and death of a young Black man in 1960: ‘Maybe it’s not worth it; let’s just let him die. Forget about that, and let’s protect the community.’”
A Journey Toward Healing
Ronnie has become a pillar in Conway, Arkansas, the city where his brother was murdered by police officers 60 years ago. He has impacted thousands of students at the University of Central Arkansas through his role as vice president for student services and institutional diversity and has been honored with distinguished awards from not only the university but from the community at large.
“I was hurt in 1985. I was disappointed in 1985. And I really wanted to leave and did leave for a short period of time,” he said. “But I’m a person of faith, and God has a way of bringing us back to those places that we really want to run away from.
“Over the years, I’ve witnessed a city that has grown and that has progressed and that has embraced diversity now in ways that I never dreamed it would. And that has really kept me connected. … This is not the same city that it was in 1960. It doesn’t change what happened in 1960 – 1960 happened and 1984-85 happened – but the city is a better place now.”
For nearly five years, Ronnie has been working on a book that will provide details about his brother’s case – from the contradictions and inconsistencies presented in witness testimony to the reasons why he believes his brother’s arrest was not random.
“I’m coming to a close with it. It has been a labor of love and has been therapeutic for me. I have not been able to rest; it’s just like Marvin’s spirit is saying, ‘Hey, brother. Get this done.’
“I want everybody to know him – the person Marvin Williams – not through the eyes of a bunch of lies but through the eyes of the people that knew him best.”