By Greg Markley
A Grammy winning country song in 1962 was titled “Big Bad John.” It told the legend of a large man, 6-foot, 6-inches, who used his strength to save 20 men in a mine accident. According to folklore, he was never found but in appreciation for his heroism, a marker was placed. It said:
“At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man – Big John.” In Lowndes County last week, a very popular and competent sheriff was laid to rest. But, this was a much different “Big John.”
John Williams was not in any way called “Bad John” but “Good John” and to many, “Great.”
Admirers from all over the U.S. attended his funeral; it was held at Garrett Coliseum. A 40-year lawman, Williams was killed in the line of duty Nov. 23. “When things got bad, it gave you a good feeling to look up and see Big John. And Big John always showed up,” said Herbie Johnson, a former Autauga County Sheriff. Williams, 62, was nicknamed for his 6 feet, 6 inches of height.
Efforts of civic-minded people to “Support Police” are well-appreciated by the hard-working men and women in law enforcement. Especially in big cities, largely gone are the days when police were met on their “beats” by smiling citizens and the hugs of children. Now, some young people who planned to be police or sheriffs have opted for safer and less attention-getting careers.
Some college and university kids actually believe ordinary cops are “Fascists” right out of Italy during World War I. These students are far wrong when they think every police officer or deputy sheriff belongs to the Far-Right. I often wonder why– with all the ugly face-to face conversations and gun battles happening with miscreants– that more controversial arrests don’t occur.
“Black Lives Matter” is a multiplier when local civil rights leaders need help dealing with questionable tragedies. The problem: BLM needs to mature. In July, 2013, neighborhood watch worker George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. Members of Black Lives Matter put a $1 million price on Zimmerman’s head; whether just a publicity stunt or a real threat, leaders of BLM wisely distanced themselves from it.
Still, activism by Black Lives Matter and similar groups in states and cities, helps keep an eye on the fairness of court results. In November, Montgomery Police Officer Aaron Cody Smith, 26, was found guilty of manslaughter. In 2016, unarmed Greg Gunn, 58, was killed during a stop-and frisk. This is another case where an officer has been held account for his or her use/misuse of lethal force.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. as he himself was battling a questionable arrest in Birmingham in April 1963. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Several years ago, I was driving down a county road in south Georgia and was stopped by deputy sheriffs, one white and the other African American. I was returning from an academic conference in Savannah and they saw my car weaving into the white lines. They quickly learned I do not drink alcohol, so was just tired. They suggested that I voluntarily go to the sheriffs’ office, to sleep on the couch. Instead, they sent me on my way, as I was only 75 miles from home.
In teaching as an adjunct at a college and a university since, I posed a few questions for students in political science classes to chew over. If I was an African American or Mexican, or a woman and dressed less well that day, what would happen? Was “white privilege” a factor?
Was I lucky to have proof (program, etc.) that my profile was indeed middle-class, educated and white? Otherwise, would my choices be not headed home or even to a couch, but to a cell?
Both avid supporters of police officers and those who distrust lawmen a lot may wish police would have more circumscribed activities. That would make life less complicated.
However, there is a sad, sad side to many simple cases involving the police. A case in point: A tragedy in 1970 that happened in my hometown.
Early one Sunday morning, a young policeman and an older sergeant stopped the car holding my friend’s father and mother. It was apparently for a simple ID check. When the mother reached for her purse, the younger cop shot her—to death. It was the second Sunday in May, also known as Mother’s Day. Two of our friends were motherless, and her husband just as devastated.
The young officer was obviously guilty, but inexperience not prejudice was the conduit.
As both the victim and the shooter were white, I don’t remember any outcry other than grief in my small New England city of 65,000. The officer resigned from the force, and I don’t know whether he was charged for this mistake. Painfully, there was no Big Bad John to stop this tragedy, and definitely we could use Big Good John Williams to intervene, too.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.