Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statutes: The Saga of Jesse Williams
Before you delve into the saga of Jesse Williams, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the laws and other court cases that got us to this point. Part 1 was an introduction to the topic and “A Short History of Anti-Miscegenation Statutes,” dating back to the Reconstruction Era. Part 2 took a look into the criminal cases arising out of the anti-miscegenation statutes, which resulted in the courts in Alabama nullifying marriages between black and white residents. Part 3 reviewed Pace v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court case arising out of Alabama’s anti-miscegenation statutes, in which the Supreme Court upheld racial classification as long as the laws applied to all races in equal measure.
The Saga of Jesse Williams
Williams v. State, First Edition
From 1928 to 1934, Jesse Williams (a.k.a. J.D. Williams and Jesse Lundy) was indicted or tried and convicted on four separate occasions of violating anti-miscegenation statutes. On July 26, 1928, Williams (“alleged to have been a negro”) and Louise Cassady (“alleged to have been a white person”) were jointly indicted on felony charges for being in violation of Code of Alabama § 5001 (1923), as a result of having intermarried. Williams and Cassady were married by a probate judge on April 26, 1928.
The matter turned on whether or not the two were statutorily married, and the Court of Appeals determined that the probate judge’s term of office had expired, as a result of which the marriage ceremony over which he had presided had no effect. Because Williams and Cassady were not married under the statute, and no evidence had been presented at trial of common law marriage or fornication, the prosecution could not be sustained, and Williams’s conviction was reversed and remanded back to the trial court.
Upon Williams v. State being remanded to the trial court, Williams then appealed the indictment on grounds that the indictment was defective, because in 1927 the Alabama state legislature had altered the wording of the anti-miscegenation statute contained in the Code of Alabama § 5001 (1923) and “by such amendment the essential ingredients of the designated offense were materially changed.” Because the indictment occurred in July 1928 and the charges encompassed Williams’s behavior for the three years prior to the indictment, the charges would pertain to time both before and after the legislature had altered the language of the statute. As a result, “it became necessary for the indictment to aver the time when the offense was committed, or that it was committed subsequent to (or since) the 31st day of October, 1927.” The Court of Appeals found that the indictment was indeed defective and again remanded the matter back to the trial court. I have found no indication the State attempted to prosecute the offense a third time.
Williams v. State, Second Edition
In 1933, Jesse Williams appealed a conviction of miscegenation or felonious adultery for having lived together with a white female, Bessie Batson. It came to light in this matter that Williams was the son of a white woman, who at the time of his birth was married to a white man. At trial a midwife and physician testified that upon examining Williams as an infant, “from certain infallible signs found on his body they found him to be a person of negro blood.” Upon considering the grounds for appeal, the appellate court thoroughly reviewed the trial record, and found that not only had there been no credible evidence of cohabitation between Williams and Batson, but also there was no credible evidence that Williams was a black male other than testimony that an elderly black man had lived with Williams’s grandfather prior to and at the time of Williams’s birth and “testimony that he now was dark skinned and had black curly hair and resembled a negro.” Furthermore, the prosecution asked of lay witnesses questions that called for conclusions to which only an “expert” should have been allowed to testify, such as: “Does he look like a white person?”
Throughout the prosecutor’s closing argument, he made overtures appealing to the jury’s racial prejudice, “so easily aroused and so hard to control, when it relates to sexual intercourse between a negro man and a white woman.” Specifically, the prosecutor argued:
“This man, gentlemen of the jury, a man of maturity, a man that knows that this law exists, a man that can’t help but know it, a man, gentlemen of the jury that has stumbled up against it before. And he takes this woman in the face of it, under the protest of the white people in that community and he parades her up and down the street, off in the woods, and says: ‘Do what you can about it.’ And he does it, gentlemen of the jury, for a period of several months, until there could be convened in this temple of justice eighteen good men, a grand jury of this county, who says to you that, we are going to do what we can to stop it…. Gentlemen of the jury, the desire has existed in this man’s brain, years and years, to have intercourse with a white woman.”
Additionally, the following were among the prosecutor’s statements that were objected to during closing arguments: “Since the days of the Carpetbagger colored people have thought, and still think, that they are as good as a white man.” “Down here in the south there are a few white people and a great number of colored people, and we should keep the colored man in his place.” “They were brought over here by the ship loads. Some negro men, brought from the jungles of Africa, took that white woman and ran off with her – took that woman and lived in adultery with her.”
The appellate court found that it was reversible error for the trial court to have overruled the objections of defendant to the above-referenced statements and not to have withdrawn the case from the jury in that the statements were “of the kind that arouses passion, dethrones reason and judgment, and should never be indulged in by a prosecuting officer, or permitted by a trial court,” for the law “guarantees to every defendant, white or negro, a fair and an impartial trial, free from undue appeals to passion or prejudice….” Williams’s conviction was reversed and remanded back to the trial court.
In 1934, the Alabama Court of Appeals entered a ruling on Williams’s appeal of his second trial of the same charges of felonious adultery or miscegenation. This appeal was again made on grounds of the prosecutor’s improper conduct in examining witnesses, averring that it “was so highly prejudicial that the substantial rights of the defendant were impaired.” A significant portion of the prosecution’s case was dedicated to proving that Williams was a black man, through witnesses that implied there had been a sexual relationship between Williams’s mother and the previously-mentioned black man, Joe Adkins, who had lived with Williams’s grandfather. To this effect, the prosecutor asked of witness W. Jack Stanley: “You have always understood that he (Joe Adkins) is the daddy of these colored children, haven’t you?” In other questioning, witness Stanley had referred to Adkins as “just an old slave darkey.” The court sustained Williams’s objection but issued no instructions to the jury.
As a result of this and other questions, the Court of Appeals determined that Williams had not been accorded a fair and impartial trial, and restated its assertion from the prior appeal: “The law guarantees to every defendant, white or negro, a fair and an impartial trial, free from undue appeals to passion or prejudice, and when it appears that a defendant may not have had such trial…upon proper presentation of the questions this court will remand the cause for another trial.” I have been unable to turn up any trial record that would indicate that the prosecution pursued another trial of Williams.
- Part 1, “A Short History of Anti-Miscegenation Statutes“
- Part 2, “Nullifying Black-White Marriage in Alabama“
- Part 3, “Pace v. Alabama: Upholding Racial Classification at the Supreme Court“
- Part 4, “Repeat Offender: The Saga of Jesse Williams“
- Part 5, “Courts Move against Racial Classification and toward Interracial Marriage“
- Part 6, “Loving v. Virginia: An End to Interracial Marriage Bans“
- Part 7, “2001, A Race Odyssey: Alabama’s Anti-Miscegenation Statute is Repealed“
 Williams v. State, 23 Ala. App. 365 (1930). A severance of the cases was granted, and Williams alone was put on trial.
 Williams v. State, 24 Ala. App. 262 (1931).
 Id. The amended statute was approved by the legislature on August 2, 1927, and because it was a penal statute, it did not become operative until sixty days after it was approved, which was October 31, 1927.
 Williams v. State, 25 Ala. App 342, 343 (1933).
 Id. at 344.
 Williams v. State (1933), at 344.
 Williams v. State (1933), at 344.
 Williams v. State, 26 Ala. App. 53, 54 (1934).
 Id. at 55.
Photo via Robert.