Leonard Lee Williams (Killing of)

Leonard Lee Williams, a nineteen-year-old African American man, was killed on Sunday, August 17, 1969, at the Wagon Wheel Drive-In in Benton (Saline County) in an incident sparked by racial strife in the city. The following day, a group of Black citizens marched to city hall to demand justice. Mounting racial tensions were eventually eased through an emergency meeting of the city’s newly formed biracial committee. A grand jury handed down indictments to a number of individuals on various charges for their roles in the killing of Williams and the ensuing violence.

According to a report in the Northwest Arkansas Times, published on August 18, 1969, Williams and a “girl companion” went for a late-night meal at the Wagon Wheel Drive-In in Benton on Saturday, August 16. Upon arriving at the restaurant, Williams and his companion were harassed by white patrons, so they left. According to Mayor Noel Butler Jr., however, “Williams and a group of Negroes returned to the restaurant Sunday night,” but this time “three or four men on the top of the building with guns” shot at them. In the chaos that followed, Williams was shot and run over in the parking lot while trying to escape the gunfire. Several others were wounded. Nineteen-year-old Bradford Higgins was shot in the leg and was hospitalized in Little Rock (Pulaski County). A white youth, Holden Shoemaker of Bryant (Saline County), was also injured.

The next day, August 18, between seventy-five and 100 African Americans marched from Benton’s historic Gravel Hill community to Benton’s city hall to make several demands known to the mayor. The marchers were led by James Bryant Jr., who was chairman of the Benton chapter of Black United Youth (BUY). Seven young men from the march met with Mayor Butler, Aldermen Raymond Evans and Malcolm Elrod, Police Chief Jim McClintock, and Sheriff Guy Grant. March leader Bryant listed three demands, which were published in the Benton Courier. First, the group asked for a complete investigation and an open hearing into the violence that occurred on Sunday night. Second, the group wanted Roscoe Smith, who owned the restaurant, placed in police custody. Third, they wanted the Wagon Wheel Drive-In closed immediately.

There was no curfew enacted the night of August 18, as Mayor Butler believed it would create more tension, but Arkansas State Police units were alerted and the Benton unit of the Arkansas National Guard was on standby. Meanwhile, Williams’s body was sent to Little Rock for an autopsy to determine whether he was killed by gunshot or from being run over.

On Wednesday, August 20, the Arkansas Democrat reported that circuit court judge Henry B. Means of Malvern (Hot Spring County) had ordered the Saline County Grand Jury to investigate Williams’s death. Mayor Butler was quoted as saying that racial tensions, which had escalated after the shooting of Williams, had decreased and that “things are fairly stable at this time.” The special grand jury was called into action because Prosecuting Attorney Robert N. Hardin of Benton believed the incident was of “such importance to the people of Saline County that it warranted a Grand Jury investigation.”

The Benton Courier reported on the whole incident on Thursday, August 21, with a photograph on the front page of the group of African Americans marching to city hall. According to the Courier’s report, the car that struck Williams was reportedly “driven by a Negro youth who was trying to get away from the gunfire and did not know Williams was on the ground.” It also reported that jury commissioners D. W. Hensley, Noel Brown, and U. S. Floyd, “selected a 23-man jury panel and the first 16 present were named to investigate the case.” The special grand jury, of whom six were African American, was selected “for this purpose and this purpose only,” according to the Courier. Henry Finkbeiner was its foreman.

Mayor Butler said that it was up to the prosecuting attorney to decide if anyone would be arrested. According to the Courier, one of the Black youths who met with Mayor Butler said that Roscoe Smith called Black customers “boy” and had “made a gag out of it.” He added that, on the Friday night before the Sunday night incident, white youths at the Wagon Wheel called black youths “niggers” and tried to provoke a fight. So, he said, the Black youths who went to the Wagon Wheel Sunday night expecting a fist fight “were ambushed by white men with guns on top of the building.” None of the Black youths had guns.

On August 27, the Arkansas Gazette reported that ten indictments had been given by the Saline County Grand Jury in connection with Williams’s death. After four days of testimony, in which thirty-eight witnesses were called, Wagon Wheel Drive-In owner Roscoe Smith was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and was released on $1,000 bond. Sheriff Guy Grant also arrested two young men, Carl Fuller, a twenty-year-old Black man, and Charles Wood, a nineteen-year-old white man. Both were released on $500 bond. The grand jury concluded that the incident was “a teenaged fight between the whites and the blacks and we find that all parties were at fault.” The grand jury also put some blame on the local police, saying that if they had responded in “the most responsible manner this unfortunate occurrence might have been averted.” The grand jury cited negligence of the youth’s welfare by both the Black and white communities.

On August 28, the Gazette reported that two white men, Denver Witham and Jerry Thornberry, were charged with “voluntary manslaughter in the death of Leonard Lee Williams.” Two other white men, Charles Wood and Jackie Stuckey, were charged with unlawful assembly to riot. Five Black youths were also charged: Bradford Higgins was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Brothers Donald and Edward Coutee of Gary, Indiana, along with Carl Fuller and Donald Ray Crosley were charged with unlawful assembly to riot. Both Coutee brothers had gone back to Indiana, so they were not arrested. Denver Witham was out on parole at the time of the incident, so he was sent back to prison. Williams’s body was sent to Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where his family held a funeral and burial.

More details came out on September 14 in an article by Maurice Moore in the Arkansas Democrat. Moore’s article reported that racial tensions in Benton after the death of Williams were eased in part due to a midnight meeting that took place between Mayor Butler, a biracial committee, and others. Butler and his biracial committee reportedly met at city hall with seven representatives from the march and the mother of a “black youth who was wounded.” “We told the Negro leaders exactly what was going on,” said Butler. “We wanted to assure them that everything possible was being done to investigate the case.” He and Police Chief McClintock had also made visits to the Gravel Hill community for a week to keep leaders informed of any progress in the investigations. Butler said that Black youths had ridden in police cars “to show the folks that there was no problem and that we were getting along fine.”

The trials for the five Black youths indicted by the special grand jury were held in the March 1970 term of the Circuit Court, with Judge Means giving each six months in jail and fining them $250, according to march leader Bryant.

On March 19, 1970, the Benton Courier reported that Denver Witham had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter charges in the death of Williams and was serving a three-year sentence at that time. Judge Means fined Jerry Thornberry $250, and Thornberry’s charge was reduced from voluntary manslaughter to unlawful assembly. Bradford Higgins, Donald Ray Crossley, Carl Fuller, and Jackie Stuckey were also fined $250 and charged with unlawful assembly. Charles Wood and both Edward and Donald Coutee were also charged with unlawful assembly. Roscoe Smith, owner of the Wagon Wheel, was fined $250 for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Smith was barred from running a business in Arkansas; he left Benton soon afterward. Bryant later went on to work for the Benton Police Department. Witham, who was serving time for another crime by that time, had his sentence commuted in 2004 by Governor Mike Huckabee.

For additional information:
“10 Indictments Given in Death of Negro at Benton Restaurant.” Arkansas Gazette, August 27, 1969, p. 2.

“75–100 Negroes Stage Protest March in Benton.” Northwest Arkansas Times, August 18, 1969, p. 3.

“Benton Slaying to Be Probed by Grand Jury.” Arkansas Gazette, August 20, 1969, p. 21.

“Five Get Fines in Wagon Wheel Shooting Incident.” Benton Courier, March 19, 1970, pp. 1A, 12A.

“Grand Jury Called to Probe Shooting.” Benton Courier, August 21, 1969, p. 1.

“Grand Jury Indicts 10.” Benton Courier, August 28, 1969, p. 1.

“Investigation Asked in Negro’s Death.” Arkansas Democrat, August 20, 1969, p. 3.

Moore, Maurice. “Four Mayors Say Their Biracial Committees Really Help.” Arkansas Democrat, November 23, 1969, p. 6.

———. “Midnight Meeting Prevented Violence, Benton Mayor Says.” Arkansas Democrat, September 14, 1969, p. 2A.

“Saline Grand Jury Indicts 10 in Death of Negro Teenager.” Northwest Arkansas Times, August 27, 1969, p. 20.

“Officials Name 9 Indicted in Benton Case,” Arkansas Gazette, August 28, 1969, p. 5.

“Youth Is Slain, Negroes March Mile at Benton.” Arkansas Gazette, August 19, 1969, p. 1.

Cody Lynn Berry
Benton, Arkansas


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