Georgia Littered With Nightmare Memories Of Bobby Hall, Charlie Ware, Gator and Scroot Johnson
Long before there was George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Freddy Grey, Rodney King or Emmett Till, there was Robert “Bobby” Hall and Charlie Ware.
And before there was Sheriff Joe Arpaio, before there was Sheriff Bull Connor and before there was Sheriff James Clark Jr., there was Sheriff Claude Screws, Sheriff Lee Warren “Gator” Johnson and Warren “Scroot” Johnson Jr.
In 1943, World War II was raging in Europe and in Asia. On Jan. 18, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto rose up for the first time, starting the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On the homefront, the civil rights movement was not even a thought while violent, racial segregation was the law in Georgia and the rest of the deep south. African Americans were effectively denied the vote, were subject to persistent discrimination and violence and lynchings were frighteningly common and prosecutions of the murderers rare.
For a 30-year-old African American mechanic, Robert “Bobby” Hall, Friday, Jan. 29, 1943, would be his last day alive and he would be counted as one of 4,743 lynchings in the U.S., recorded from 1882 to 1968.
Hall was beaten to death with a black jack by Baker County, Ga. Sheriff Claude Screws and his two deputies. Hall had committed the unpardonable sin of challenging the white authorities when he called on the sheriff to to return a pistol that had been illegally seized from Hall.
State authorities refused to indict Screws but the three officers were later convicted in federal court. The case was reversed on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Liberal Justice William O. Douglas wrote the majority opinion on May 7, 1945, that found that the government had not shown that Screws had the intention of violating Hall’s civil rights when he killed him. The ruling made it extremely difficult for the federal government to bring prosecutions when local government officials killed African-Americans in an extra-judicial manner.
Seventy-seven years later, the Congress finally passed a law outlawing lynchings. The Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was signed into law on March 29, 2022, making lynching a federal hate crime offense.
The bill imposes a fine, a prison term of up to 30 years, or both on an individual who conspires to commit a hate crime offense that results in death or serious bodily injury or that includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.
But not in 1943.
Hall was a lifelong resident of Newton, a small, foregettable town in Baker County, Ga., with a population of around 300. The county was viewed by some at the time as one of the most backward counties in the state, a place where everybody knew everybody’s business and everybody knew there place, most everybody.
Located in southwestern Georgia, Baker County in 1940 had a population of around 7,000. Sixty percent were African Americans, almost all the descendants of enslaved people. Much of the county’s early history involved violent removal of native Americans and rebellion. During the Civil War, the Second Georgia Calvary organized in Baker County included Aden Screws, Claud Screws’ grandfather.
Claud Screws was elected sheriff in 1936. He had been a farmer whose family operated a meat market and grocery store. Screws later said that he considered Bobby Hall to be “a biggety negro” and “a leader among the colored.” As it was throughout the south, the sheriff was the unquestioned law enforcement authority.
Screws, 56, began the evening of Friday, Jan. 29, 1943, at a local bar. Around midnight, he sent his deputies Frank Edward Jones and Jim Bob Kelly to Hall’s house to arrest him on charges of stealing a tire. The real reason for the bogus arrest was that Hall had challenged southern racist law when he went before a grand jury to recover a pistol that Screws had wrongfully taken from him.
Screws claimed he heard that Hall had shot another black man and had a .38 cal. pistol. Sheriff’s Deputy Jones seized the gun from Hall’s truck and turned it over to Screws. Screws refused to return the gun and Hall asked a county attorney to help but Screws stood his ground and again refused.
The lawyer then notified Screws in writing of Hall’s request for his gun. That night, Screws’ deputies arrested Hall for tire theft though there was no evidence of a stolen tire and Screws had forged the warrant. After midnight, residents living near the jail heard a commotion and looked out to see that Hall had been handcuffed and dragged to the county courthouse lawn. Screws, Jones and Kelley used their fists and a two-pound blackjack to beat Hall mercilessly for about a half an hour. He was dragged into the jail and thrown on the floor before he was finally removed to a hospital where he died within the hour.
One resident testified, “The licks sounded like car doors were slamming.” During the beating, Screws could be heard commanding the other officers, “Hit him again, hit him again.”
The U.S. Department of Justice indicted the three men for violating the Fourteenth Amendment, and depriving Hall of his federal constitutional right not to be deprived of his life without due process of law. The statute makes it a federal crime to willfully deprive someone of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States,” while acting “under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom.”
Screws and his deputies were convicted at the federal court house in Albany, Ga., despite their claims that the beating had been in self-defense. The conviction was upheld by the Circuit Court and then appealed to the Supreme Court. While the case was moving through the courts Screws was reelected as sheriff by a wide margin.
Hall was lynched. Whether it was from a rope or the end of a gun, it was a lynching. From 1882 to 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings in the U.S., according to records maintained by the NAACP. The most lynchings were in Mississippi, with 581 recorded. Georgia was second with 531, and Texas was third with 493. African Americans were the primary victims of lynching: 3,446, or about 72 percent of the people lynched, were Black. Some white people were lynched for helping Black people or for being anti-lynching. Immigrants from Mexico, China, Australia, and other countries were also lynched.
By the time the Supreme Court decided the case of Screws v. United States, Baker County was the location of seven recorded lynchings of black men.
One case involved the 1965 killing of Hosie Miller, mother of Shirley Sherrod, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee. The sheriff at the time was Warren Johnson, a man who stood six-six and weighed upwards of 300 pounds. Johnson called himself “Gator” because he made loud, alligator-like sounds to “scare” blacks. Gator Johnson had been Screws’ deputy at the time of the Bobby Hall murder.
Hosie Miller allegedly was shot to death by a white neighbor, Cal Hall, (no relation to Bobby Hall) in a dispute over cattle. Witnesses claimed the shooter acted without provocation. Carl Hall, who died in 1976, survived a grand jury investigation and a civil suit brought.
The Baker County jurors, mostly white in the majority black county, refused to hold Hall responsible either criminally or civilly.
There were no arrests in the Miller lynching but in 2010, the FBI agreed to reinvestigate the cold case. To date, there has been no new charges.
Sheriff Johnson also was involved in the July 4, 1961 shooting of Charles Ware, a 5-foot-five, 145 pound, 47-year-old African-American field hand.
Ware was born in Baker County and lived with his widowed mother and three siblings. In 1930, the 16-year-old Ware was apparently imprisoned at the “Industrial Farm for Colored Males” in Adamsville, where boys as young as 10 were incarcerated.
On July 4, 1961, Ware was at a barbecue at Ichauway Plantation, which was owned by Coco-Cola Board Chairman Robert W. Woodruff. At some point, Ware allegedly flirted with the African-American mistress of the white overseer of the plantation. The overseer complained about this to his friend Johnson.
That night, Johnson went to the Ware home, where he beat Ware’s wife, Louise Ware, and forced Ware out of bed. The sheriff arrested, handcuffed him and forced Ware to recite the 23rd Psalm before driving him to the county jail. He then made a claim over the radio of an attempted knife attack, saying “[He’s] coming on me with a knife. I’m going to shoot him!” Johnson then shot the handcuffed Ware four times but Ware survived.
Johnson was later indicted by a Baker County grand jury on charges of felonious assault. In the spring of 1963, the all-white jury deliberated for less than 90 minutes before exonerating the sheriff.
Ware’s criminal case was brought to trial in July 1963, and included assault and allegations that Ware was drunk at the barbecue and on a public highway. Ware was found guilty. He later moved to Albany, Ga., where he died at the age of 84 following multiple strokes.
A different version was told in 2005 by Randy Battle, who worked for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through the 1960s. In his memoir, “Groceries; Charlie Ware; and ‘Gator’ Johnson,” Battle wrote that Sheriff Johnson and Ware were dating the same African American woman. In 1963, Johnson caught Ware coming from the woman’s house. The sheriff arrested Ware and handcuffed him to the doorpost of the police car. Johnson shot Ware twice in the head after he claimed Ware had tried to choke him.
“It was the same old story, in the South, you know, a white guy wanted this black woman, and anybody didn’t like it, look out! Including the woman’s boy friend, they just kill him. I mean, you know, we in the South know what is going on. There wasn’t no mystery in it,” wrote Battle. “That cracker tried to kill Charlie Ware because he was fond of Charlie Ware’s old lady and then they charged Charlie Ware with attempted murder for not being quite killed and wanted to hang him since they hadn’t quite managed to murder him.”
Embattled sheriffs are a longstanding tradition in Baker County. Johnson, who served from 1957 to 1977, advocated public hangings. His son, Scroot Johnson, took office after his father and in 1982 and he was convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion and went to prison. Hopson Irvin was appointed Sheriff in 1982 to replace Scroot Johnson but Irvin was convicted of conspiring to run the liquor business of Jerry Johnson, Scroot’s brother.
In the last 50 years, only two sheriffs have held the office without being charged with a crime-Larry Etheridge and J. W. Gaines.
Another victim of the terror reign of Sheriff Johnson was Shirley Sherrod, a former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On July 19, 2010, she gave a speech to the Georgia NAACP conference and parts of the speech were later taken out of context and publicized by Breitbart News. Labeled a racist by Breitbart News, Sherrod was forced to resign. Upon review of the complete unedited video in context, the NAACP, White House officials, and Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, apologized for the firing and Sherrod was offered a new position.
In her speech at the Georgia NAACP 20th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet, Sherrod reminisced about the life growing up in Baker County or “Bad Baker County” as it was known. She talked about the murder of her father, Hosie Miller and about L. Warren “Gator” Johnson, “a drinker with a fifth-grade education” and the shooting of Charles Ware.
“It was 45 years ago today that my father’s funeral was held. I was a young girl at the age of 17 when my father was murdered by a white man in Baker County,” Sherrod said. “In Baker County, the murder of black people occurred periodically, and in every case the white men who murdered them were never punished. It was no different in my father’s case. There were three witnesses to his murder, but the grand jury refused to indict the white man who murdered him.”
Sherrod said Sheriff Johnson “had a holler that would make you want to tremble.”
“He also killed a lot of black people — and Gator Johnson was the law in Baker County. And when I say that I mean no one, black or white, could ride through the County with an out-of-county tag. That means you could have a tag from anywhere else in Georgia — you couldn’t ride through Baker County without being stopped. And the Atlanta [Journal]-Constitution reported at one point that his take on the road was at least $150,000 a year — and that was during the 60s,” Sherrod said.
Several months after Miller’s murder, a cross was burned at night in front of the Miller family’s home. Inside were Grace Miller and her four daughters, including Shirley, and infant son, born after her husband’s killing.
Memories of her father’s murder and the cross burning were scorched in Sherrod’s mind and it led her to a lifetime of civil rights work.
The year her father was murdered, Sherrod was among the first black students to enroll in the previously all-white high school in Baker County. And 11 years later, Grace Miller became the first black woman elected to a county office, one she continued to hold, as of 2010.
Sherrod attended Fort Valley State College and later studied sociology at Albany State University in Georgia while working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement. She went on to Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she earned her master’s degree in community development. She returned to Georgia to work with the Department of Agriculture in Georgia “to help negro farmers keep their land.”