How Southern lynching gave birth to South Carolina's death penalty


COLUMBIA - The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened last month in Montgomery, commemorating 4,400 confirmed lynchings in the United States between 1877 and 1950, and documenting lynching as a form of terrorism used to maintain white supremacy in the Jim Crow era.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative that built the memorial, said its purpose is to encourage Americans to wrestle with that legacy and its lingering effects on the criminal-justice system - and all of society for that matter. According to Stevenson, "our goal is not to be divisive" but to "encourage people to confront the truth of our past with more courage."

South Carolinians should heed Stevenson's call. At the center of the memorial are 800 weathered, reddish steel monuments - one for each county in which a lynching took place. South Carolina is well represented with 35 monuments - some listing more than a dozen lynching victims.

It is imperative the citizens of this state not only know, but also face lynching's long legacy.

The research that Justice 360 founder John Blume and I conducted found that the large majority of those who lost their lives to a lynch mob were black men and boys, some in their early teens, accused of rape, attempted rape or lesser "offenses" against white women. In fact, prior to 1899, no black person was legally executed in South Carolina for rape or attempted sexual assault; every single person so accused died at the hands of a lynching party.

Even after 1899, lynchings were common for perceived transgressions against "Southern white womanhood," which the public believed deserved instant justice, or when the criminal justice system did not deliver the "correct" result. For example, after a judge directed a verdict of not guilty in a 1926 Aiken County murder case previously overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court, a mob "overpowered" the jailer and murdered the three defendants.

Lynching also occurred for minor offenses (our research identified one lynching of a man accused of stealing a Bible and of an elderly woman who allegedly covered it up) or for no crime at all (e.g., blacks not "knowing their place" in the social/economic order).

The last S.C. lynching occurred roughly 70 years ago. Willie Earle was arrested on circumstantial evidence that he killed a Greenville taxi driver. On Feb. 17, 1947, a white mob demanded the Pickens County Jail turn Earle over. The members of the mob then drove Earle to Greenville, where they stabbed and shot him.

After many of the men involved confessed their role in the lynching, 31 white men were tried for murdering Earle. An all-white jury found the defendants not guilty. The courtroom broke out in applause, and the judge, disgusted by the verdict and reactions, left the bench without thanking the jury for its service.

It is all too easy to say that lynching is a thing of the past, a product of an earlier era of our state's history best forgotten. That would be both wrong and short-sighted. Lynching was replaced with a legal system of capital punishment that continues to mete out the death penalty disproportionately to black defendants accused of crimes involving white victims. It became, for all practical purposes, lynching's stepchild.

The race of the victim continues to be a major determining factor in who will be executed. We have tracked every death penalty case in South Carolina since 1977 (the "modern era" of the death penalty), and 81 percent of all death sentences have been imposed on defendants accused of killing a white victim.

South Carolina's current death row is more than 56 percent African-American, though African-Americans make up less than 30 percent of our state's population. We have also identified several cases in which black men were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries (and judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys), making the courtroom appear (at least visually) more like a lynch mob than a court of law.

The racist roots of capital punishment are alive and well.

George Santayana said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unless we face and acknowledge the ugly history of racial terror embodied by the lynch mob, there is no hope of reducing the pernicious effects of race that continue to infect South Carolina's death penalty.

Vann is the executive director of Justice 360; she represents individuals facing the death penalty. Contact her at