On January 22, 1976, Gordon B. Howell went into a convenience store outside Dawson, Georgia to buy some cigarettes. It was the last thing he ever did. Shortly after he entered the store, a group of men came in to rob it, and one of them murdered Howell. Within two weeks, the Terrell County Sheriff Department arrested five young, African American men: Roosevelt Watson, Henderson Watson, J.D. Davenport, Johnny B. Jackson, and James E. Jackson Jr.
In time, the whole country would know them as the Dawson Five.
The arrest and trial of the Dawson Five sparked a fierce debate about how much had changed in Georgia since the days of Jim Crow. As the case proceeded, Jimmy Carter became the first President from Georgia, and he had sought to convince voters that the South had put the worst of its past behind.
Details revealed during the case left many people wondering if that was really true. All five suspects were African American, and they claimed that the police— all of whom were white —forced them to confess to a crime they didn’t commit. Millard Farmer, the Dawson Five’s attorney, believed that law enforcement's handling of the suspects reflected a deep, systemic bias among the region's populace. He told reporters, "A kid who is black and lives in Terrell County understands and knows he's going to be mistreated if he's arrested.”
This exhibit draws on the Millard Farmer Papers housed at Georgia State University's Special Collections and Archives to tell the story of the crime, the investigation, and the fight to free five innocent men. In addition to newspaper articles and records kept by Farmer's defense team, the exhibit also lets visitors hear Millard Farmer's personal account of the events, marked In His Own Words. Finally, visitors can submit their own views toward the relationship between race, crime, and the justice system today.
by William Greer