Rush to Judgment

In World War II, Houston attorney Leon Jaworski prosecuted a group of black American soldiers. In a hurried-up trial, they were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor. The verdict was probably wrong. And Jaworski had a lot to do with that.

Would Jaworski have agreed? The answer might be beside the point. "I'm sure he got pressure from higher-ups, too," Michael Stewart says , with a surprising lack of bitterness, "but where do you draw the line? Apparently, his career came first."

Hard Times
A convicted rioter, now 88, insists he was innocent

Sentenced to hard labor for rioting along with 28 other black soldiers in 1944, Samuel Snow, 88, is now one of only two who are still alive. But his memories of the riot and his conviction -- wrongful, he says -- remain vivid.

In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
Baylor University
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.

As the riot gathered force in 1944, Snow walked down a hill to the Italian Area to retaliate against the Italians for punching out a friend. Before he made it very far, however, he was knocked out by a blow or a rock that came out of nowhere, he says.

Snow later confessed to being involved in the riot, but only after an investigator threatened him with death if he remained silent. The officer laid a noose on the table in the interrogation room, he says, and evoking the threat of the lynch mobs that were still common in Snow's native Florida, suggested that Snow would be dangling from it if he didn't admit his guilt.

"They just scared them boys in all kinds of ways," he says. "They was cruel to us, very cruel."

Journalist Jack Hamann found that no witnesses on the night of the riot ever saw Snow attack anyone. Even so, Snow was sentenced on the force of his confession to a year of hard labor. He was forced to march on long drills and pick up trash. "They say, 'Do this and do that,' that's what I did," he remembers. "I didn't pay no attention. But lots of them boys, they kicked against it, and I been knowing, you can't kick against a parade."

After serving his sentence, Snow was released on dishonorable discharge.

The stigma made it hard for Snow to find a job; he was ineligible for government positions and ultimately landed work as a janitor at a whites-only Methodist church.

Snow persevered, sending his two sons on to college. In the '50s, he convinced army officials to change his discharge record to honorable, qualifying him for veterans' benefits.

He now says the army owes him pension back pay for the period after the war. He hopes House Resolution 3174, a congressional bill that would reopen the books on the court-martial, will help him get it.

Overall, Snow's memories from the war are bittersweet. "I know I came from a segregated community, and I found I was in a segregated army, but I loved it," he says. "I wanted to do everything I could for it. All them guys who were in that segregated army, they loved it, but they wasn't treated right." -- Josh Harkinson

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