On November 20, 1948, Robert (“Duck”) Mallard, 37, and his wife, Amy Mallard, their son, John, and two of Mrs. Mallard’s young cousins, were driving to their home in Toombs County, Georgia, when they encountered a mob of around 20 armed men wearing white robes. Mrs. Mallard recognized one of the men as her neighbor, William Howell. The mob opened fire and killed Robert Mallard. Mrs. Mallard ran to the home of a nearby farmer, who notified Toombs County Sheriff R.E. Gray of the slaying. When Sherriff Gray arrived at the scene, instead of trying to locate the suspects, he searched Mrs. Mallard.
Several theories of the perpetrators’ motives emerged. During grand jury proceedings, Mrs. Mallard testified that her family had been warned not to vote in the 1948 gubernatorial election, in which segregationist candidate Herman E. Talmadge was running. Others suggested that Mrs. Mallard had angered white churchgoers by honking the horn outside their church. Some speculated that white neighbors resented Mallard’s prosperity. For his part, Sheriff Gray dismissed Mrs. Mallard’s story, calling her husband a “bad Negro.”
Governor Talmadge ordered the Georgia Bureau ofInvestigation (GBI) to launch an investigation. GBI agents showed up at Mallard’s funeral and arrested Mrs. Mallard for the murder, holding her for nine hours before releasing her. The NAACP then became involved. Joseph Goldwasser, a businessman and NAACP member from Cleveland, disguised himself as a local farmer and met with two white men who admitted that they had been part of the mob. He informed the Governor and, on December 4, 1948, five white men surrendered in connection to the case. That night, fires wiped out the Lyons black business area.
On December 10, 1948, Mrs. Mallard related her account of the murder to a special grand jury at Toombs County Superior Court. The grand jury indicted William Howell and Roderick Clifton. At Howell’s trial in state court, however, the jury acquitted him after only 25 minutes of deliberation. The judge allowed the county attorney to drop the indictment against Clifton, and the other three men who had been held in connection with the murder were never charged. On July 4, 1949, units of the Ku Klux Klan allegedly burned down the Mallard home in Lyons. Gray reportedly said, “It was just an accident. That woman hasn’t been back here to look after her property since she left.” Indeed, Mrs. Mallard and her son never returned to Lyons, Georgia. They settled in Buffalo, New York.