Ronnie Williams memorializes his brother Marvin in the book, “Markham Street.”


For more than half of the 20th century, the center of Black entertainment and commerce in Little Rock was a five-block stretch of West 9th Street. The equivalent in nearby Conway was a stretch of similar length called Markham Street, which connects downtown Conway to Hendrix College.


At various points in time, businesses such as Deluxe Diner, Mattison’s Blacksmith Shop and Sunset Cafe lined Markham Street. The only structures still standing now house Mattison’s Muffler Shop and Better Life Ministries. The City of Conway has created Martin Luther King, Jr. Park along Markham and it includes several markers that commemorate the street’s past. Many more improvements are planned.


Ronnie Williams named his book “Markham Street” not to recognize past prosperity but rather to remember a past peace. Markham Street was the last place his older brother Marvin experienced peace on this earth. On May 5, 1960, two white Conway police officers snatched the 20-year-old from a parked car on Markham Street in which he was resting. Hours later the 6-foot-4, married former paratrooper and father of a son with a daughter on the way would be dead.


Here’s the bottom line of the book: Law enforcement officers killed Marvin Williams. When you read and fairly consider the physical evidence, the circumstantial evidence and the eyewitness testimony, it is the only logical conclusion. Whether it was Officers Marvin Iberg and Bill Mullenax; Sheriff Joe Castleberry; jailer Joe Martin; Police Chief Rod Hensley; all five or some other combination, officers sworn to protect and serve instead opted to beat and kill.


“In 1960, the police did not have to be good liars to be believed,” Williams writes. “They only had to concoct a story and stick to it.”


Williams sets the stage by recounting the racial oppression that escalated during the 1950s, calling it “a tough decade for Black families in the Deep South.” An example from this era, the 1954 lynching of World War I vet and prosperous landowner Isadore Banks in Crittenden County, resulted in national news coverage, but no arrests. The following year, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in neighboring Mississippi. And of course, 1957 put Arkansas in the national spotlight again with the crisis at Central High School.


Meticulous notes and painstaking research brought the story back to life.


“Meanwhile, the relentless oppression, intimidation and degradation that happened every day in a thousand ways never made the news,” Williams noted.


Immediately after Marvin Williams’ death, there were no charges. Officers claimed he was drunk and died from an accidental fall. Autopsy results not shared at the time later disproved both claims.   


As time goes by and years turn into decades, cold cases can heat up again. Sometimes it is because of advances in technology and DNA testing, but other times a witness comes forward. And there was a witness to the jail cell attack on Marvin Williams, a witness who watched and listened from the safety of another cell.


He lied the day after Marvin’s death because he said he was threatened by the prosecutor, George Hartjie, Jr. But 24 years later, Charles Hackney was no longer afraid of Hartjie, by this time a judge. He wrote a letter to the parents of Marvin Williams to confirm what they already knew in their hearts. And based on that letter, the investigation into Marvin’s death was reopened, and Officers Iberg and Mullenax were charged.


The 1985 trial was big news; The New York Times covered it, and Geraldo Rivera came to Faulkner County to do a 16-minute story for ABC’s “20/20” news program. Marvin’s father, D.V. Williams, told Rivera, “Whatever is done in the dark will come to light. I knew Marvin wasn’t a drunkard, but I couldn’t prove it. And I lived long enough to find out the truth.”


Rivera also interviewed eyewitness Charles Hackney, who recalled Hartjie telling him in 1960, “You sonofabitch. You didn’t see nothin’, you didn’t hear nothin’, you don’t know nothin.’ And if you want out of my g–damn jail, you’re going to say as you’re told.” So, he lied.


Also interviewed for the broadcast was then-Gov. Bill Clinton, who supported the search for justice.


“You know, part of the lost legacy of the South are the stories of many people who I think suffered injustice; many, many hundreds of stories that never will come to light in all the states of the South and perhaps throughout the country,” Clinton said. “And that’s all changed now.”


Well, not quite. Charges were filed, and there was a 17-day trial during which over three dozen people testified, but no one was found guilty. Hackney claimed his family was threatened, and his testimony proved problematic for the prosecution. At least one other juror, now deceased, told his wife during the trial that he felt unsafe. She said he never explained why and didn’t want to discuss the trial after it ended.


In his book, Williams names the members of the all-white jury: Carla Bentley, Debbie Lou Brantley, Rebecca Jane Cox, Linda Favre, Glenda Jean Hall, Nola Harris, Milton Jackson, Monita Kelley, Robert Gene Kelley Jr, Walter Mayfield, Earl Roland and Kathy Jo Smith. Several are now deceased.


“Given the facts of the case, all the facts that we had submitted, all of the evidence that was there –the forensics, the testimony, all of the experts who testified at the criminal trial – and for them to leave that courthouse offering high-fives, smiles and handshakes to the defense, I felt that their names should be mentioned,” said Williams. “I felt that when you render a decision like that, the world needed to know who those individuals were.”


Race relations have improved since those troubled days. Williams said he wouldn’t have been able to climb the ladder at the University of Central Arkansas if things weren’t better.


“I would not have accomplished some of the things that I have accomplished if America were not a better place,” he said. “But we have to continue to work at it because it’s fragile.”


Williams also recognizes most law enforcement officers do not abuse their authority.


“We have very good men and women who represent us, who protect us every day in the law enforcement profession,” he said. “However, our family, along with so many other families, are painfully aware that we have individuals who do not have the character, the competence and the compassion to work in law enforcement.”


So what will you learn if you read this book? You’ll learn what other tragedy befell the Williams family the night Marvin was killed. You’ll learn why a young woman is key to understanding the police’s motives for targeted Williams. You’ll learn the words a mother spoke to calm a son desperate and distraught after earthly justice was denied. You’ll learn how Ronnie Williams’ faith sustained him and ultimately freed him. And, you’ll learn which descendant of 1960’s-era law enforcement apologized recently to him.


Finally you’ll learn that, like me, Ronnie Williams sometimes struggles to find ways to wrap up what he writes.


“I was searching for a way to end the book,” he said. “I was 99.9 percent finished with the book when I went to a gathering. President (Houston) Davis, my former supervisor at the University of Central Arkansas, and I attended this event. It was to discuss the aftermath of the George Floyd killing. And a good friend of mine, Laurie Ross, walked up to me and said ‘You know…let me tell you something.’”


That something is a one-page epilogue that ends the compelling “Markham Street.” That something adds a twist that only God could author.


Jason Pederson

For two decades, Jason Pederson served as KATV-Channel 7’s Seven On Your Side reporter. Now on the other “side” of his award-winning time on the news, he now serves as Deputy Chief of Community Engagement for the Arkansas Department of Human Services. His perspective-filled and thought-provoking column, “This Side of Seven,” publishes exclusively in AY About You magazine monthly.


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