More than two-dozen men barged into the Pickens County jail one morning in 1947, carrying shotguns and demanding the old man on duty turn over Willie Earle.
None of them even bothered to wear masks.
Earle had been arrested the day before in connection with the murder of a Greenville taxi driver. The man’s dying words, and circumstantial evidence, led police to the 25-year-old.
But the criminal justice system wasn’t good enough, fast enough or certain enough for these men. They took Earle at gunpoint and, on an old country road, beat and stabbed him for an hour before someone put a shotgun to his right temple and pulled the trigger.
It was the 164th lynching in South Carolina since the end of Reconstruction, and it would be the last.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and two Democratic colleagues last month introduced legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime. Scott says it “sends a message that together, as a nation, we condemn the actions of those that try to divide us with violence and hate.”
That’s a noble cause. But national politicians have tried, and failed, to do this for more than a century. Perhaps this time Scott can show them the way.
Because South Carolina put a stop to mob violence shortly after Earle’s death.
A violent past
Between 1877 and 1950, there were more than 4,000 lynchings in this country.
Most of the victims were African-Americans, like Earle, and their sad stories are the focus of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Perhaps that new and moving monument resurrected the idea of anti-lynching legislation, but it also may have something to do with the horrible, divisive tone this nation has adopted in the past year.
People are now attacking other Americans in the street, screaming “illegal immigrant” whenever they see someone who doesn’t look like them, summoning the police whenever they see someone in their neighborhood who has different pigmentation in their skin.
It’s disturbing. Charlottesville, as bad as it was, could have been worse — and this shows no signs of abating. So Scott and his colleagues aren’t dredging up old times best forgotten, they are attempting to administer preventative medicine.
The Willie Earle incident was a turning point in South Carolina history.
Mob violence was stirred up during the 1876 election, when a paramilitary gang of Democrats called the Red Shirts used violence and intimidation to keep black people from voting.
Future Gov. Ben Tillman led some of those parties and, for decades, stoked racial unrest. At times, his rhetoric was so incendiary that even segregated South Carolina called him out for it.
But nothing much changed until Earle was killed.
A just cause
The men who killed Earle were so cavalier about their actions that more than two-dozen freely admitted their role in the plot.
Gov. Strom Thurmond, just a year before he became the face of the Dixiecrat movement, was horrified by what happened to Earle. He urged federal prosecutors to help the state put these men in jail.
“This crime is a disgrace to the state and it is a shame that the decent people of South Carolina must bear this infamy,” Thurmond said. “The people of this state do not condone mob rule, and every effort will be made to apprehend the persons responsible for this atrocity.”
Eventually, 31 men were charged with Earle’s murder and put on trial. And even though most had confessed, a jury of 12 white men acquitted every one of them. The judge was so mad, he didn’t even thank the jury for its service.
That attitude wasn’t universal. When President Harry Truman proposed anti-lynching legislation, South Carolina politicians called it unnecessary — even though it had been less than a year since Earle’s death.
But in 1951, South Carolina made lynching an offense that carried the death penalty. The legislation was written by a young state lawmaker named Ernest “Fritz” Hollings.
If that law changed the climate here, perhaps it could help today on the national level. Scott, who knows more than enough about the discrimination that still permeates that world, has taken up a just cause because we don’t need to go back to those times.
And if South Carolina can change, the country can.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.