Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jimmy Coker- making Florida safe for democracy (United States v. James Coker)

On November 8, 1870, elections were held in Florida for Congressman and state assemblyman. The Democratic candidate, S.L. Niblack disputed the victory of Republican Josiah T. Walls (who had defeated Hamilton for the Republican nomination back in August). Testimony taken in the dispute went into detail about a disturbance at the polls in Marianna on election day. Unsurprisingly, James P. Coker was in the middle of the fray. A number of Jackson County freedmen testified.

According to witnesses, Coker approached a polling station in Marianna and ordered the black men waiting to vote to stand back and, this failing, began hitting people with his walking stick. When the black voters objected and insisted on their right to vote, Coker said that they had been there long enough and that if they did not give way, he would clear them out or he would "have their blood or guts." Coker rushed the polls with a group of white men and when the black men refused to fall back he said "God damn you, I won't leave enough of you to tell the tale, let alone to send the news to [Gov.] Reed." Coker pulled out his pistol and turned toward Jerry Robinson who was standing behind Coker. When Robinson insisted on his waiting his turn to vote, Coker said "Didn't you hear me give the order for you God-damn niggers to leave the poll?" and threatened to kill Jerry Robinson. According to Richard Pooser, Coker stated that the blacks were obliged to vote the Democratic ticket and that if they didn't' they would have to leave Jackson County. Jesse Robinson, a candidate for Jackson County representative to the state assembly that day, testified that he was struck in the mouth by Dr. Alexander Tennille and that he looked back to see Coker and Jerry Robinson fighting and witnessed Coker drawing a pistol with the evident intent of shooting Jerry Robinson. "Little" Jim Baker overtook Coker, seizing him around the waist as Coker struggled to get away, and grabbed Coker's pistol. Baker likely prevented Coker from shooting Jerry Robinson. Benjamin Livingston testified that he heard Baker tell Coker to "go and make up with that negro, or it might cost him a great deal of trouble. He (Coker) said, 'I won't do it; I would rather kill him.'"

Daniel Bryan stated that after Tennille struck Jesse Robinson, he kicked Bryan and said "forty acres of land, God damn you, without a mule." Tennille then approached Richard Pooser who related that Tennille said "Pooser, God damn your radical soul to hell, forty acres of land without the mule. This has been a negro Government, but now it is going to be a white man's Government. You have been voting for niggers, carpet-baggers, and scalawags, and we white men are going to put a stop to it." Tennille waived a hickory stick over his head telling the blacks to get back so the whites could vote. Many black citizens, perhaps 100 to 200, who were waiting to vote went home after this outburst of violence.

For these actions, Coker was indicted by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida for hindering, delaying obstructing and preventing citizens from exercising their right of suffrage, as guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Dec. 13, 1871. The case of U.S. v. Coker was closed without conviction or going to trial.
(sources: 42d Congres, 2d Sess., Mis Doc. 34, Part 2, Additional Papers in the case of Silas L. Niblack vs. Josiah T. Walls; NARA, RG21, U.S. Dist. Courts, Northern Dist. of FL, Tallahassee Div., Criminal Case Files 1850-1871, Box 1.