Wilkerson v. State
The 1947 landmark case of Wilkerson v. the State of Arkansas, in which two African-American men were prosecuted after a deadly highway shooting incident, ended the exclusion of African Americans from Jefferson County juries, marking the first time black jurors had served in the state since Reconstruction. The case also 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.
On February 9, 1947, 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, while Deputy Bryant and C. W. Winston died later from gunshot wounds. Willie Wilkerson initially received medical care in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) from Dr. Cleon Flowers Sr., brother of William Harold Flowers, and was later moved to Davis Hospital; his brother Albert went to the Jefferson County Jail. 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; no bail was set.
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 and Z. Alexander 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.
The jury heard arguments from both the prosecution and the defense. 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 retired to reach a verdict, and the court gave the jury twenty-five instructions, which included the court’s definitions and explanations of murder, express malice, malice, the differences between first-degree and second-degree murder, manslaughter, aiding and abetting, self-defense, and reasonable doubt. Although the defense objected to these instructions, Judge Parham overruled the defense.
The jury was deadlocked for two days and could not reach a unanimous verdict. Judge Parham reminded the jury that criminal trials were expensive; he wanted the jury to attempt to reach a unanimous verdict to avoid a mistrial. Eventually, the jury reached a verdict and found Willie Wilkerson guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced him to two years in prison. The jury found Albert Wilkerson guilty of second-degree murder and decided to let the court determine his sentence. Judge Parham gave the defendants ten days to file a motion for a new trial.
On May 1, 1947, the defense filed a motion for a new trial. Judge Parham overruled the motion and the defendants’ motion to file an appeal to the Arkansas State Supreme Court. However, Judge Parham allowed the defendants fifty-eight days to file a Bill of Exceptions. The verdicts of the jury stood. The court had sentenced Willie Wilkerson to two years in the state prison or convict farms, and Albert Wilkerson was sentenced to twenty-one years in the state prison or convict farms. Judge Parham set bail Willie Wilkerson’s bail at $3,000 and Albert Wilkerson’s bail at $10,000. At the end of May 1947, the court filed an appeal bond in the amount of $3,000 for Willie Wilkerson and issued an order to release him from the custody of the state prison.
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.”
For additional information:
“Arkansas Supreme Court Plans to Hear Appeal of Wilkerson Brothers Case.” Pine Bluff Commercial, December 10, 1947, p. 1.
“Attorney Posts Appeal Bond for Willie Wilkerson.” Pine Bluff Commercial, May 30, 1947, pp. 1, 10.
“Attorneys File Motion Today for New Trial.” Pine Bluff Commercial, May 1, 1947, p. 1.
Castle, John T., reporter. Arkansas Reports Vol. 212: Cases Determined in the Supreme Court of Arkansas From October 1947 To March 1948. Little Rock: State of Arkansas, 1948.
Childress, Carl. “After Deliberating 17 Hours, Circuit Court Jurors Return Their Verdict Late Yesterday.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 17, 1947, pp. 1, 6.
———. “Deadlocked Jurors Continue in Session.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 16, 1947, pp. 1, 14
———. “Jury Selection Continues as Murder Trial Opens in Jefferson Circuit Court.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 14, 1947, p. 1
———. “Wilkerson Brothers, Convicted of Slaying Two White Men, Are Given Penitentiary Sentences.” Pine Bluff Commercial, May 15, 1947, pp. 1, 3.
“Defense Attorney Is Given More Time for Seeking a New Trial.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 26, 1947, p. 1.
“Deputies Slain at Altheimer, Negroes Held.” Arkansas Democrat, February 10, 1947, p. 2.
“Deputy Sheriff and Companion Shot to Death: Admission Made by Arrested Negro.” Arkansas Gazette, February 10, 1947, p. 1.
“Deputy Sheriff, Companion Killed Sunday.” Pine Bluff Commercial, February 10, 1947, p. 1, 10.
“In Defense of Wilkerson.” Arkansas State Press, December 12, 1947, p. 1.
“Man in County Jail Awaiting Return to State Penitentiary.” Pine Bluff Commercial, January 27, 1948, p. 1.
“Jury Trying Negro Pair Stalls, 11 to 1.” Arkansas Democrat, April 16, 1947, p. 2.
“Murder Trial Reset until Next April 14.” Pine Bluff Commercial, March 31, 1947, p. 1
“Murder Trial to Be Resumed Monday Morning.” Pine Bluff Commercial, April 13, 1947, p. 1.
“Negro Slayer Given 21 Years in Pine Bluff.” Arkansas Democrat, May 15, 1947, p. 22.
“Negroes Found Guilty but in Lesser Degree.” Arkansas Democrat, April 17, 1947, p. 2.
“Noble Lake Negroes Are Charged with First Degree Murder.” Pine Bluff Commercial, February 18, 1947, p. 1.
South Western Reporter. Second Series. Volume 206 S.W.2d. Cases Argued and Determined In The Courts of Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1948.
“Supreme Court Affirms Hyde Death Verdict: Conviction of Two Altheimer Negroes for Slaying Upheld.” Arkansas Democrat, December 22, 1947, pp. 1–2.
“Try Negroes for Deaths of 2 White Men.” Arkansas Democrat, April 15 1947, p. 11.
Weathers, Deborah. “Local Lawyer See Changes in and out of Courtroom.” Pine Bluff Commercial, October 28, 1979, p. 8E.
“Wilkerson Brothers’ Sentences Affirmed by Supreme Court.” Pine Bluff Commercial, December 22, 1947, p. 1.
Wilkerson v. State, 1947 Docket No. 4468. Arkansas Supreme Court Briefs and Records, Series IV. University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Willie was treated by Dr. Flowers at the home of his oldest brother, Havis Wilkerson, who lived at 515 S. Louisiana St. in Pine Bluff. Willie and Albert lived outside of Pine Bluff on a plantation called Fairfield. It was Havis’s car that Willie and his younger brother Albert were driving. Albert was nineteen and had recently returned home from visiting their sister in California. Willie turned thirty-three on that very day! I can still hear my elders recount that day: “It was the second Sunday in February…February 9th, Nineteen Hundred and Forty Seven”!
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