William Daniel

Background

On December 21, 1946, Deputy John W. Vanderford shot and killed William (“Willie”) M. Daniel, a twenty-one-year-old veteran, on the sidewalk outside of the Westfield Commissary in Westfield, Alabama. He was employed a coal miner by the Tennessee Coal & Iron Company (TCI). Shopping at the TCI Commissary with his new wife, Ruby Ard Daniel, Vanderford shot him after he put his hand into his pocket during “questioning” for making “some insulting remarks” toward a white female clerk of the store.

Witness statements collected by the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) paint a different picture. The female store clerk had instead accused Daniel of “brushing up against” her. Ruby, Daniel, and several other witnesses do not recall Daniel making any motions to his pocket. They also do not remember Daniel making any threatening remarks to or jumping away from Vanderford before he was shot. Others in the community heard rumors that the store clerk leveled the accusation after Daniel forgot to say, “yes ma’am” in response to a question she had asked him.

Sarah Davis, a shopper in the store, alerted Daniel to the clerk’s accusation and warned Daniel to leave the store. Daniel responded that he did not do anything and did not have to run away. It was shortly after this conversation that the store manager got Vanderford’s attention, reported the accusation, and pointed out Daniel. Vanderford touched Daniel on the shoulder and told him to come outside and get into the car. Shortly after the men went outside, Vanderford shot Daniel in the chest. After shooting him, the police searched Daniel for a weapon and found nothing. A witness heard Daniel cry out from the ground that they shot him for nothing.

Legal Status

The SNYC collected and sent witnesses statements to the Bessemer Solicitor’s Office, while Daniel’s father, NAACP attorney Arthur Shores, and SNYC Special Projects Director Arthur Price requested that the Solicitor issue a warrant for Vanderford’s arrest. No arrest warrant was ever issued.

The SNYC also gathered a group of key citizen civil rights activists and created the “Willie Daniels Defense Committee” that distributed petitions through churches and communities around Birmingham to raise awareness about the grand jury case and urge action by the Solicitor. Some anticipated that this group might continue to function as a citizens’ Civil Rights Committee.

The witnesses were ultimately subpoenaed, though Vanderford himself served the subpoena on at least one of the witnesses. Five or more witnesses testified before a Bessemer grand jury in mid-February 1947, but the jury did not indict Vanderford.