A Question of Murder

Nine years ago, a forbidden interracial love affair in an east Texas town ended with a hanging. Was it suicide or a perfect lynching?

It seemed as if the couple knew that their destiny together was doomed. The woman ended her letter urging Rodney not to "get too mad today. Just ignore people. I'm sorry I have caused you trouble. But I don't care what people think!"

But Rodney cared.

He had complained to his mother about jeers and racial taunts against his girlfriend. "He said that white guys told her if they knew she wanted a black guy they would have rolled over in the mud," Katie Faye Williams recalls.

On October 10, the woman wrote another letter, again reminiscing about a night of "passionate love" and imploring her lover:"Do I have to stay in Hell-Rise tonight, or are you going to let me sleep in your arms once again? If you want me to sleep in the Hell-Rise, I will, but I will complain."

For the next two months, Rodney would make frequent visits to team doctor Wayne E. Forston for treatment of bruised shoulders. "These were not considered serious injuries, nor was it unusual for us to see him as frequently as we did," Forston noted.

But all of Rodney's injuries may not have been game-related; he was tackling opponents off the field as well. "He was getting into fights over her," his mother alleges. One night, she says, the lovers themselves got into a brawl, and Rodney was arrested. Mrs. Williams, who does not remember what the argument was about, says she told the woman, after the charges were dropped, "You gon' get him killed."

LITTLE DID KATIE FAYE WILLIAMS know that her warning would be the epitaph in the chronicle of a death foretold. On Wednesday, December 6, the day the Williamses say an anonymous female called radio station KKDA warning that a "black boy" would be lynched at Kilgore College, Rodney's girlfriend told his parents that Rodney had received a disturbing phone call.

According to Albert Williams, "She thought that someone had died in his family because he was really upset and he started packing, saying he was going home."

On December 8, the last day that Rodney would be seen alive, coach Woodard, who is no longer at Kilgore College, learned that Rodney would not be returning for the spring semester.

"This puzzled me, because I thought that Rodney was happy here," he said in his letter to the Williamses. "I knew that the season had not gone exactly the way he wanted it to. He sprained his ankle early on, and about the time he was over his ankle injury, he hurt his shoulder. Every time I thought he was over his shoulder injury, he would reinjure it. I am a former player, and I did not expect Rodney to play hurt. Rodney was very proud, and he tried to play with his injury. I saw that he was in pain, and it got to the point where I would not let him participate. I tried to explain to him that I understood players getting injured; I knew that Rodney's best football was still ahead of him."

Rodney called home around 3:15 p.m. that day. "Something happened that week that made Rodney want to come home, but he didn't tell me on the phone when he called me," his father says.

Around 5:30, Woodard ran into Rodney in the college cafeteria and confronted his player about a report that he had dropped out of school. Woodard talked him out of leaving.

"He told me that he had thought about it, but that he was definitely going to return," according to Woodard. "He said he was going to work hard again this spring, and that he would be an all-conference player in the fall. We discussed Jasper, and he said that they had some players that we needed. . . . He told me he would help recruit them to come to Kilgore. It seemed to me that Rodney had just had fleeting doubts about playing football. I left his table feeling very good about our conversation."

But Woodard sensed that Rodney was depressed. He understood that young black men like Rodney succumb to any number of pressures, including broken family ties and the burden of succeeding in a white world while facing subtler forms of racism.

The coach later confided to the Williams family that he had experienced some pressures similar to those Rodney faced when he played football at Kilgore College. "Even though I was very happy here," Woodard explained, "there were times I considered quitting and going home. I missed my family and friends, just as Rodney did. I am also from a small town, and I felt I knew what Rodney was going through."

Mrs. Williams spoke to her son around 8 p.m. "He said he was coming home the next day," she sobbed. At about 11:30 p.m., the phone rang.The operator said it was Rodney calling collect. But the voice on the other end was that of Randy Matthews, a friend of Rodney's. He told Mr.Williams that Rodney had hanged himself.

Three hours later, Albert Williams, accompanied by Rodney's grandfather Reverend J. Harvey Lewis, two other ministers, and one of Rodney's uncles, arrived at the Kilgore police station. They were greeted by Detective Cerliano, who told them Rodney had committed suicide. Cerliano added that Rodney did not leave a suicide note, and a preliminary investigation had determined that he had been drinking and had a "girl problem."

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