MASTERSON ONLINE: A brother’s murder

Filing in with scores of others the other day, we glided up the escalator at the Clinton Presidential Library.

We were eager to hear Ronnie Williams of Menifee discuss his compelling new book, “Markham Street,” that delves deep into the brutal May 6, 1960, murder of his older brother, Marvin, in Conway’s Faulkner County jail.

Ronnie, whose family is Black, felt spiritually compelled to start working on his book in 2015. That was 30 years after an all-white jury in 1985 exonerated former Conway Police officers Marvin Iberg and Bill Mullenax in the slaying.

The officers had taken Marvin into custody on Conway’s Markham Street for allegedly being stumbling drunk, although an autopsy and toxicology report tucked away for 24 years would find his blood contained zero alcohol.

In some ways, Marvin’s senseless murder, which in 1984-85 occupied an intense year of my own life while investigating the case for the Arkansas Democrat, was vaguely similar to the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose death was also caused by a city ​​police officer who was ultimately convicted of his murder.

However, unlike Floyd’s killing in front of cell phones and a crowd of witnesses as the arresting officer’s knee pressed relentlessly into Floyd’s neck, Marvin’s death had come from a savage beating and resulting four-inch skull fracture in the county’s cell block, witnessed by a one-armed white inmate named Charles Hackney.

The enormous upstairs room at the library was packed with at least 350 people, all there to hear Ronnie talk about his book and older brother, a 20-year-old prodigy who had finished high school at 15 and recently returned from service in the first US Navy and later with vaunted 82nd Airborne.

At the time he died, Marvin and wife Bonnie had one son and were expecting a daughter, and he worked for Ward Bus Manufacturing Company in Conway.

Passages of Ronnie’s book told of his being 7 years old when the older brother he and his family adored was murdered, while revealing the harsh travails of growing up Black in Arkansas during such a blatantly bigoted era.

He artfully weaves the disturbing facts about Marvin’s murder and the resulting cover-up throughout the book.

Though he’d experienced periods of intense anger, even hatred, as the facts of the case unfolded 24 years after the fact, he assured the audience that his was not a book about “an angry Black man.” Rather, he said, he wrote it focused on learning to meet evil with love.

I began investigating and writing about this case alongside Ronnie in 1984 when, as had the Williams family, I received a copy of Hackney’s letter that described in gruesome detail witnessing Marvin being savagely beaten by two uniformed officers in the cell block.

Hackney said he’d been threatened the next morning by Faulkner County prosecutor George F. Hartje (later circuit judge) unless he falsely testified before a coroner’s inquest later that morning.

Hackney did as he’d been told.

More than anything today, I wanted to remind readers about Ronnie’s very well-written book that describes Marvin’s killing and its aftermath on his family of eight children and and the close-knit Menifee community.

I’m also writing about this disturbing case again not to rehash the shocking facts, but because I believe every Arkansan young and old would be well-served to read it.

I want everyone to know what a powerful and revelatory work Ronnie has created after six years of using a pen and legal pad as wife Connie transcribed his words into a computer. “I’m the only one who could read his writing,” she told me with a smile.

Today, I’ve drawn excerpts from the book to provide a sample of the many intimate details and thoughts Ronnie shares across 287 pages.

Part 3 titled “Exhumation”:

“Watching as Marvin’s casket was closed and his grave was once again covered with dirt, I felt robbed of the love and companionship of a brother I barely knew, robbed for my nephew Ricky and my niece, Sharon, who never got the chance to know and experience the love of their father; robbed for my brother who never got to realize his full potential in this world; robbed for my parents of the precious place and space he occupied in their lives and robbed by a judicial system that refused to acknowledge or recognize my brother’s worth and value as a human being.

“As painful as it was to see my brother’s body returned to earth, I used that pain to motivate me to get justice for Marvin.

“While we waited for the results of the grand jury investigation, Mike Masterson discovered through a FOIA request, a document sent to the FBI on May 7, the day after my brother was beaten to death …

“The document included a message with the caption, ‘Urgent Intraoffice Message.’ The message was sent to the director of the FBI in Washington. According to the message, the caller told the FBI that a ‘Negro male, last name Williams, was found dead in the Faulkner County jail on May 6, 1960. on to say that the sheriff had called the local coroner, Robert McNutt, who initially declared Marvin’s death due to a heart attack. Although the informant’s name was blacked out … it was clear this person knew that information regarding my brother’s death was being suppressed. But the informant did not stop there, he / she identified another person (… name also blacked out) that has information concerning this matter.

“Apparently this phone call prompted two very limited investigations by the FBI, both of which failed to hold anyone accountable for any wrongdoing.”

When Marvin’s cases ended in front of an all-white jury in Conway, Ronnie told his audience he was understandably filled with anger and desire for retribution against those responsible. The justice system clearly had disappointingly failed in its responsibility.

Part 7 titled “Mother’s Words”:

His book describes a meeting with his beloved mother Johnnie in the aftermath of the many obvious injustices. Choking up as he began reading, Ronnie asked his son to finish reading for him.

“My mother was a godly woman and very perceptive. During the case when I visited my parents, she’d have me sit down so she could talk to me.

“She’d give me one of those deep, soul-searching stares that only a mother can give and then she’d say,” Baby, are you OK? My reply was always ‘Yes mother, I’m OK.’

“But she knew I was conflicted. She could see right through me. I believe God gives good parents, godly parents an extra something, an instinctive awareness that alerts them when their child is about to do something incredibly stupid, which is exactly where I was during that time. My mother could tell I was not in a good place. She could see my dysfunction.

“What mother said to me that day has forever altered the way I handle disappointment. ‘Baby, you have enough of me in you to not do anything wrong …’. She wanted me to remember what she had deposited into my siblings and me … to remember what she had deposited in me would prevent me from making poor choices when life slapped me in the face.

“My mother’s words, spoken at a time when my soul was teetering on the edge of anger and destruction, literally saved my life. I do not know where I’d be today if she hadn’t forced me to sit down and listen to her because I was a train wreck waiting to happen.

“Making me hear her words of wisdom while she looked at me with love and understanding in her eyes opened my heart and allowed God to speak to my innermost being, to my soul.

“It was during this time God began to substitute my desire for violence with a desire for ministry.”

Ronnie earned his bachelor’s degree at Hendrix and a master’s degree from Arkansas State University. He recently retired as vice president for student services and institutional diversity at the University of Central Arkansas, which named its student center after him.

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the insights “Markham Street” offers every Arkansan, an important story everyone in Arkansas should read as an ugly, yet piercingly honest, part of our history.

It’s a timely book about intolerance and systemic racism leading to a murder covered up by a “good old boy” power structure. I highly recommend it for young adults and those old enough to remember Marvin’s story unfolding for months on the front pages of the Arkansas Democrat in 1985.

Pick up a hard copy or e-version at Amazon, Walmart supercenters, Walmart.com, Target.com, and bookstores.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master’s journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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