William M. Manier was a giant of a man, tough as they come, within whose chest beat a servant’s heart. A street sign within the city limits bears his name but only a small minority of Lebanon residents would know of his achievements.
Also called “C.L.” and “Commander,” Manier was a World War I veteran and a lawman, a peacekeeper that carried a little stick and talked softly as he patrolled the streets of Lebanon from the mid-1950s almost until the day he died, Aug. 20, 1979.
At the time of his death at age 83, Manier was believed to be the nation’s oldest active policeman and he was reportedly the city of Lebanon’s first full-time black police officer.
After enlisting in the in the U.S. Army at 21, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the 92nd Division. He saw the face of death up close while serving with Company G 806 Pioneer Infantry in the autumn of 1918 in the Argonne Offensive, where he was twice wounded in the same leg.
Joining the American Legion in 1919, the veteran founded American Legion Post 179 in Lebanon in 1931 and became the post commander. He would carry that title the remainder of his days.
Former sheriff recalls Manier
“We called him Commander. I worked with him while I was a detective. He wasn’t afraid of anything or any man. With him it was not about race. It was about what was right or wrong. He did more around here to help any veteran, no matter what color. He was a unique individual,” said Terry Ashe, who started his law enforcement career as a part-time reserve deputy in Lebanon in 1972. Ashe later became chief of detectives with the Lebanon Police Department before taking on the role of Wilson County Sheriff from 1982-2012.
“He had a heart as big as a dump truck. If you were a vet, he didn’t care what color you were. He was the veteran service officer even before there was one. He would help people to no end.
(As a police officer) the square was his main forte. In the ’60s, when they built the housing project where many African Americans lived, he was the main fixture.”
In penning Manier’s obituary for The Tennessean, the late Lebanon journalist J.B. Leftwich called the public servant “one of the city’s most beloved citizens.”
“Manier was a major factor for the racial stability Lebanon experienced during the turmoil of the 1960s as the city adjusted to the expanded rights for its black citizens. In his own way, no other black resident did more for his race,” opined Leftwich.
One night in March 1962 during a period of civil rights unrest in the Cedar City, Manier and fellow police officer Jack Lowrey saved the life of an African-American man after he had been pulled from his vehicle by a group of angry whites.
A local legend as a cop, his decades of devotion to the American Legion made him a legend across the country as he went to more than 50 annual Legion conventions. Standing tall at 6-foot-5-inches, he marched in the parade at each national convention while adorned in his Legion uniform and wearing an array of medals and pins.
“He started Post 179. It was one of his proudest achievements. He missed only two conventions over the years,” said Gail Manier, the veteran’s granddaughter and the daughter of Roberta Billie and William L. Manier. “I remember people coming to him wanting a way to go to the V.A. (Veterans’ Administration Hospital), and he would take them, and he would pay their dues.
“Granddad and I had a wonderful relationship. He would joke around and had a great sense of humor. He would come to visit us in Chicago, and I would come with him back to Tennessee on the train. He had a big garden in back where he grew vegetables of all sorts, and he loved to hunt squirrels, rabbits, squirrels and quail. He loved to fish,” recalled Gail, who moved with her parents to Lebanon in 1970.
She bemoans the fact that she possesses no photographs of her grandfather as all the family photos were destroyed in a fire.
Gail distinctly remembers the revolver he wore on his right hip and the stick that hung from his belt, noting, “He did not hesitate to use the billy club if somebody was out of hand. … Granddad never drove. He was always on foot, but finally they (Manier and his patrol partner, Teddy Owens) got a police car, and Teddy drove.
“Granddad retired one month before he died. He was always active. He was so outgoing. He never met a stranger. An all-round good guy, he would help anybody and had personality plus. When Granddad passed, we got telegrams from police departments all over the world.
“His body lay at state at Market Street Church of Christ. After his funeral they took his hearse around the square. He was (treated) like a dignitary,” said Gail of her grandfather, who was buried with full honors at Nashville National Cemetery in Madison.
Two years later, in 1981, the Lebanon City Council unanimously voted to rename a section of Bluebird Road in his honor, christening it C.L. Manier Street. It was the first street in Lebanon to be named for an African American.
“He would have loved it,” his granddaughter said.
Devoted to the Legion and veterans
William M. Manier was born March 15, 1896, in Stonewall, Smith County to Tennie and Carl Lee Manier. (He later picked up the nickname, “C.L.,” because of the initials in his father’s first and middle name.)
After World War I, Manier joined American Legion Post 88 in Chicago in April 1919. He moved to Cincinnati in 1923 and transferred his membership to a post there. And after resettling in his hometown, he chartered a post here in 1931.
His passion for the American Legion was recognized across the Volunteer State and the U.S. He was the first black service officer from Tennessee invited to the National American Legend Rehabilitation Conference in Washington, D.C. And he was the first African American to win the Babe Steagall Trophy for his work on behalf of veterans, their widows and orphans, and he received the Legionnaire of the year award in 1972. Veterans Administration officials praised Manier for helping more veterans get to V.A. hospitals than any other post service officer in the state.
Lebanon’s Leon Shannon, 78, says Manier was a father figure to him.
“After my father died, any time I needed something or had a little problem, I’d go to him and he was like a father. When I’d get in a tight, he’d always get it straightened out. He would help anybody no matter who it was. He was a kind person and got all the help together before we’d go to camp. He worked at camp 32 years,” Shannon said.
“He was the first black policeman in Lebanon. He couldn’t drive a car and when he arrested somebody, he walked them to the jailhouse and told them, ‘Don’t run.’ He patrolled Upton Heights and Inman Court, and then on the square.
“When they first started integrating and had a little problem, they would send him. You didn’t mess with C.L. They gave him a whole lot of high respect. He carried a good name in Lebanon. If he told you to do something, he’d mean it.”
Longtime Lebanon City councilman Fred Burton offered high praise to Manier, saying, “He was definitely a respected policeman. He didn’t play back in the day. When they used to have field days at school, he’d sit on the corner by the school and keep the kids in check and acting right.
“He used to be at all the basketball games, at Wilson County High School before it closed and then at Lebanon High. He kept everybody in check. You better believe that. He was the first black that went full time on the Lebanon Police force and was still active up till he died. He made sure a lot of military veterans got medical treatment at the V.A.”
Ashe shares more details
Ashe, a Vietnam veteran now serving as the Deputy Commissioner and Chief of Staff for the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, offers a broader perspective on Manier’s life and the legacy he left behind.
“This was a man who saw combat at its worst in WWI. He served at a time when we in the U.S. did not even respect our African-American brothers and sisters. He sacrificed more humiliation and abuse than anybody in this town, but when he put that uniform on, he was Commander. Everybody that truly knew him respected him, and those that didn’t know him, they feared him. He was a tower of a man who had a deep voice but was soft-spoken,” Ashe said.
“C.L. was a mainstay who commanded respect from everyone. They respected him a great deal for his military service, and I think that transitioned to his police role. I used to walk the housing project when I was sheriff, and people gave me tons of respect. C.L. was the guy you would go to and ask, ‘What do you know about so and so?’ He was like the SRO (school resource officer) of the housing project. He was like a social service worker. He found out if somebody’s kids were not getting fed or if somebody was not getting taken care of. He was on the frontline.”
Ashe recalled an incident that occurred one night in the early 1970s when he was a young Lebanon policeman.
“There was a place in Inman Court called ‘the slab’ where guys would gather some nights and drink beer, smoke dope, shoot dice, raise Cain and start fights. I was out that night, two or three in the morning, and I got a call to go up to the slab.
“Four or five of us (policemen) rolled up. Best thing I ever seen was C.L. Manier coming up the sidewalk in his pajamas with his nightstick in one hand and that old revolver. They didn’t scatter because of us. They scattered because of him,” Ashe said.
“I was a pallbearer when he was buried in Nashville, and we buried an American hero. I had profound love and respect for this man we called ‘the Commander.’ He always treated me with kindness and respect. And that’s how I remember him today. If you ever met him, you’d never forget him.
“C.L. is somebody I admired, who I loved, who loved me back, and I am so lucky to have had him walk through my life. I listened to his advice as young officer coming up and practiced some of the things he taught me about respect and being kind to people and taking care of the veterans.”
Sources for this story include “In Their Own Voices: African Americans in Wilson County” by Patricia Ward Lockett and Mattie McHollin and the Wilson County Black History Committee; “The History of Wilson County” by G. Frank Burns; the February 1973 issue of “The Tennessee Legionnaire”; articles by J.B. Leftwich in Aug. 23, 1979, and March 17, 1981, issues of “The Tennessean.”