This national television PSA was meant to protect children from the rising crime rate in cities around the nation in the 1980s.
But in Atlanta, Georgia, between 1979-1981, this PSA spoke directly to the parents of Black children that were being kidnapped and murdered in broad daylight by what appeared to be a boogeyman. As the rate of Black children kidnapped and murdered rose to nine, a task force was created, but police were clueless about who was perpetrating the crimes, and, as a recent five-part HBO docuseries suggests, content to wrap the story up as soon as possible due to fears of unrest and bad public relations.
The Atlanta Child Murders sets out to tell parts of this story that were never revealed and explores many of the city’s unanswered questions, raised once again by Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields, who reopened the case last year.
“It destroyed my family and my community,” said Anthony Terrell by phone, who appears in the docuseries and is the brother of one of the victims, Earl Terrell, age 10. “If you go to the same neighborhood today it looks nothing like it used to.”
By 1981, nearly 30 Black children, all of them poor and working class, were found dead in rivers and in wooded areas, the majority strangled, sometimes just blocks from their homes. This was happening as Atlanta’s newly elected mayor Maynard Jackson was in the process of moving the city towards something more equitable—diversifying the all-white police force and ensuring Black business owners had financial support. Jackson’s commitment to growing the Black middle class in Atlanta would cause a reverse Black migration and eventually earn the city the nickname “the Black Mecca.”
Part of that unfettered growth involved burying one of Atlanta’s most tragic and racially charged chapters.
In one scene in the HBO docuseries Jackson sits at a table with $100,000 in reward money strewn about in front of him. Politicians on the local, national, and federal level had a stake in making this case go away. The FBI, then-president Ronald Reagan, and Vice President Bush all got involved after Jackson held a meeting with Reagan for federal resources to put towards the case. The prevailing fear that went largely unspoken publicly was that if this killer were revealed to be white, Atlanta would explode in race riots.
As word spread, artists and activists donated their time and talents. James Baldwin was summoned from his expatriation in Paris by the first black Playboy editor, Walter Lowe, to go to Atlanta with him to investigate the murders. Baldwin’s essay about the murders would be expanded to become his last book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.” Author Toni Cade Bambara’s posthumous novel, “Those Bones Are Not My Child,” focused on the world that allowed this to happen and the trauma inflicted on the families. New York’s Guardian Angels rode down to Atlanta to help protect black communities.
As publicity for the murders heightened, police, the FBI and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) settled on one suspect, Wayne Williams, a diminutive black man who worked as an ambulance chaser/freelance photographer. At the time many of the parents of the victim, along with community members, felt that Williams, who would be sentenced to two life sentences, was just a scapegoat.
“I am convinced and will always be convinced that Wayne killed many of them,” said journalist Clem Richardson by phone, who covered the case in Atlanta and appears in the docuseries. “He did not kill all of them, but he killed a lot of them.”
Williams was arrested on circumstantial evidence. Police claimed he stopped by a bridge and dumped something over and they found a body nearby days later. They had three failed polygraph tests and rug fibers and dog hair that were not specific to the victims, but specific to the environment where the victims may have been and, experts claimed, rugs in Williams’ home and the Williams family dog.
There were a few family members of murder victims and community members that were sure in their conviction that Williams was the killer. Photographs in Williams’ family house were burned, photographs that police suspected were of victims.
Many more family members of victims thought Williams was used as a scapegoat so that Atlanta could continue its upward economic trajectory.
The two victims that Williams was convicted of killing, Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, were both in their 20s. Two days after Williams’ conviction, the rest of the cases, including the cases of 24 black children, were closed without investigation.
At the time after Williams’ conviction reporters found that at least 64 more unsolved Atlanta area killings fit the criteria the police department set as a pattern. At least 25 of them occurred after Williams was arrested, 7 while he was in jail.
The docuseries explores Williams’ hearing for a new trial which was led by a celebrity group of civil rights lawyers: William Kunstler, Bobby Lee Cook, Ron Kuby and Lynn Whatley. The hearing lays bare compelling evidence linking the Ku Klux Klan to at least one of the child murders.
But what the docuseries does best is give a face to the 30 victims and their families. Compelling advocates like Camille Bell, parent of 9-year-old Yusuf Bell, emerges as one of the stars of the series. Bell was unyielding in her pursuit of justice creating a coalition of parents for the “Committee to Stop Children’s Murders” and appearing on national news outlets as a spokesperson for parents. Bell referred to Williams after his arrest as one of the “victims.”
A pedophile confessed to the murder of 13-year-old Timothy Hill, one of the victims on the task force list, but was never arrested.
“I never thought that Wayne Williams committed any of these murders,” Terrell told me. “They needed to find someone, and Wayne Williams was the target.”
In the final episode, the documentary reveals that a secret GBI investigation into the possibility of the Ku Klux Klan being the source of the murders was never revealed at trial in what defense lawyers said was a violation of the Brady doctrine, which would have led to either Williams’ exoneration, or at least a new trial. Tapes from that investigation were destroyed. But GBI records that have been reopened point to evidence involving Klan members.
In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Atlanta’s police force included members that were openly part of the Klan and would keep their robes in the trunks of their cars in case they had to make a Klan meeting at the end of the day. The first Black police officers were hired in Atlanta’s Police Department at this time with the caveat that they could not arrest white offenders.
By the mid-1970s the city was growing fast. Hartsfield-Jackson airport was opening—one of the largest international hubs in the country—and would become one of the world’s busiest airports. Civil rights icons like Benjamin Mays, Andrew Jackson, Julian Bond, Hosea Williams, Coretta Scott King, and Arthur Langford called Atlanta home. The city was on the verge of becoming a major music and entertainment hub that would eventually boast Tyler Perry Studios, prominent music producers, and act as a refuge for black talent in the South.
“When Maynard was elected in 1976, he was the first Black mayor of a large Southern city and he was wrestling control of the city from the white folks who had controlled it up to that point,” Richardson told me. “He realized how much money the city was spending and how little of that money people of color were benefiting from even though they were generating the revenue that was going out to the city coffers and going to white business.”
The murders of Black children in pockets of poverty in the city weren’t taken seriously until after police were embarrassed by a search party of nearly 600 activists, volunteers, and community members who took matters into their own hands and searched for children that had been missing. After an hour and a half the search party found LaTonya Wilson, a 7-year-old that had gone missing from her bedroom. Her mother had checked on her late at night and she was sound asleep. In the morning she was gone. Her body was found by the search party in a field the police said they had searched a day before.
The series presents new questions about the killer or killers of these children and the complicity of agencies in a rush to restore normalcy. It provides names, faces, and stories to the victims, and compelling moments of footage in Williams’ trial and appeal hearing that lend evidence to a coverup.
Richardson recalled interviewing victims’ parents at the time of the murders.
“It was just this measure of grief. That there was nothing left,” Richardson told me. “And that’s what the city was like for a lot of people then. There was nothing left.”