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Lynching law used against blacks

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State lynching law now used mostly against blacks

By Allen G. Breed
The Associated Press

JENKINSVILLE - From the time his son was old enough to understand, Kamau Marcharia has been telling him the story of an ancestor who was tied to the bumper of a Model T Ford and dragged to his death.

Like it or not, lynching is part of any black Southerner's heritage.

But Marcharia was not prepared for the call that came three years ago when his son and three other black boys got into a fight with a white boy at middle school and were summoned to court - to answer charges of lynching.

"I didn't even know there was a law like that," the veteran civil rights activist says. "I was outraged. See, a 13-year-old fighting because somebody either pushed him or punched him is not lynching. ...

"When I hear that term, psychologically I cannot get that out of my mind, the picture of some horrible event."

South Carolina's lynching law, the only one of four in the nation that is still routinely used, was enacted to end the state's long history of white vigilante justice against blacks. But that law has borne strange fruit.

Today in South Carolina, blacks are most often the ones charged with lynching - defined in the statute as any act of violence by two or more people against another, regardless of race.

According to an Associated Press analysis of crime statistics, black South Carolinians are charged with lynching twice as often as whites. Though they make up just 30 percent of the state's population, blacks account for 63 percent of the lynching charges.

In all but two of the state's 46 counties, blacks are charged with lynching out of proportion to their representation in the population. In Oconee County, for instance, blacks comprise 8 percent of the residents but 44 percent of those charged with lynching.

Prosecutors and police argue there is no racial profiling behind the law's application, noting that blacks are charged with other violent crimes more often than whites. But it's the use of the word lynching that trips Marcharia and others.

"Obviously, the law has outlived its purpose," says J. Wayne Flynt, a professor of Southern history at Auburn University. "Its intent was to stop extralegal violence, essentially aimed at blacks."

For many, the term "lynching" conjures specific images - of black men, accused of some real or perceived crime, pulled from jail cells by torch-carrying white mobs, strung up from trees and mutilated.

When South Carolina's legislature passed its anti-lynching law in 1951, it was responding to just such a case - the highly publicized murder of Willie Earle, who was dragged out of jail by a white mob and gunned down in retaliation for the death of a cabbie.

It was in Greenville County in the state's western Appalachian foothills that Earle's slaying occurred - and that is where the statute is invoked most often today.

Between 1998 and 2002, 446 people in Greenville County were charged with lynching. Blacks make up 18 percent of the county's population; they comprised 47 percent of the lynching defendants whose race was specified.

At the other end of the state lies Charleston, where nearly half of the black slaves entering the country arrived. Charleston County charges more blacks with lynching than any other - 271 in the past five years. That county is 34 percent black; blacks accounted for 69 percent of those charged.

Of the nearly 4,000 adults charged by police with lynching since 1998, only 136 have been convicted of that offense. Most such charges, like those against Marcharia's son, one of about 1,300 juveniles charged with lynching in the same period, are amended to assault or dismissed in court. But of those convicted, blacks account for 67 percent - again, twice the rate of whites.

"It's ironic at least," says William Gravely, a University of Denver history professor who was a 7-year-old boy living in Greenville County when Earle was lynched. "In one sense it's a kind of denial of the large historical record going back to the late 19th century."

It's worse than ironic to Tom Broadwater, a former attorney who travels the country with an exhibit of photographs showing the horror of lynchings.

When Broadwater practiced law in South Carolina, he represented many fellow blacks on lynching charges. Most, he says, stemmed from what he considered simple assaults.

"There's an attempt to minimize the seriousness which the word `lynching' carries with it," Broadwater says.

Of course, some lynching charges in South Carolina have involved brutal attacks, and the penalties for convictions are stiff - up to 40 years for first-degree lynching, involving a death, and 20 years for second-degree. (The statute allows for the death penalty in first-degree cases, but prosecutors could not remember the last time it was pursued.)

In 1996, a white couple in Clarendon County was charged with lynching after allegedly tying a 9-year-old black boy to a tree, shooting a gun past his head, punching and kicking him, and tying a belt around his neck until he passed out. The couple was convicted of aggravated assault and served less than two years.

Three years later in North Charleston, seven black high school students wielding pipes and trash cans were charged with lynching after a 35-year-old white man was beaten into a coma and eventually had to have a portion of his brain removed. One of the attackers was allegedly heard saying: "Yeah, we're going to get us a white boy."

In Beaufort County last year, two middle schoolers were charged with second-degree lynching when a 14-year-old boy collapsed after being repeatedly punched in the chest as part of a new-kid initiation.

The only other states with lynching statutes still on the books are California, Virginia and West Virginia, though the laws are rarely used.

South Carolina's law was adopted amid the Truman administration's efforts to pass a federal anti-lynching statute - and under the long shadow of Willie Earle's slaying.

On Feb. 15, 1947, taxi driver Thomas W. Brown was found outside Pickens, about 500 yards from his cab. He had been stabbed three times and robbed. Earle was picked up the next day and lodged in the local jail.

The following day, a mob of white men - many wearing taxi drivers' caps - stormed the jail and took Earle. He was found about two hours later in neighboring Greenville County; he had been beaten, stabbed and shot in the face with a shotgun.

Then-Gov. Strom Thurmond ordered a vigorous investigation, and 31 men were quickly rounded up and charged. Despite confessions from 26 of the defendants, all were acquitted.

Federal officials launched a civil rights investigation, but nothing came of it. Earle's widow received $3,000 in state compensation.

Although Greenville County is home to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, it remains the only county in the state without an official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Whites there are charged with lynching more often than blacks, but a 1994 case involving black youths is notable.

Kevin Garnett, who would go on to star in the NBA, was 1994's Mr. Basketball when he and four other black youths at Mauldin High School were charged with second-degree lynching for a fight in which the white victim suffered a fractured ankle. After they went through a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders, the charges were dropped. Soon afterward, Garnett's mother moved her family to the Chicago suburbs.

So when Garnett became the first player in 20 years to go straight from high school to the NBA, it was from Chicago's Farragut Academy, not Mauldin High.

Betty Strom, deputy solicitor for Greenville County, says many of the charges are amended or dropped before trial because of the difficulty in proving premeditation.

"If I'm prosecuting it, obviously I feel they meet the elements of the statute," she says. Race plays no role in the decision, she adds.

Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg isn't surprised that blacks are charged with lynching twice as often as whites. In his jurisdiction, it's like that with just about all crimes.

Greenberg - a descendant of Southern blacks and Russian Jews - says he was surprised at the term lynching's local usage when he arrived in Charleston 22 years ago. But now he's been enforcing the law for two decades, mainly as a tool against gang activity.

"I'm not consumed by the race issue," says Greenberg. "The historical meaning of the thing has no effect on me whatever. We're beyond it."

Gravely thinks the state's anti-lynching law was passed as a pre-emptive strike against the feds, as much a "states' rights move" as a moral imperative.

Marcharia has approached legislators about amending the lynching law to better reflect the word's historical meaning, but to no avail.

Trey Walker, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry McMaster, says that while McMaster is "sensitive and sympathetic to feelings associated with the term," there is nothing racial about the lynching law's construction or its application.

"There no reference to race in the statute, so it applies to anyone, any two or more people who commit an act of violence," Walker says. "The law is colorblind."

But Marcharia says the law as it has come to be used in South Carolina is an affront to blacks.

"That law was passed, in my judgment, to make sure that African-Americans, two generations from now or two decades from now, will lose the memory of their history, what happened to them," says Marcharia, whose full name is Swahili for "black warrior." "That kids born in that period of time will see lynching as a fist fight, when we know that lynching is murder and killing, burning people and evil."

The text of South Carolina's anti-lynching statute, adopted in 1951 (though it allows for the death penalty, prosecutors say that provision is no longer invoked):

SECTION 16-3-210. Lynching in the first degree.

Any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person which results in the death of the person shall constitute the crime of lynching in the first degree and shall be a felony. Any person found guilty of lynching in the first degree shall suffer death unless the jury shall recommend the defendant to the mercy of the court, in which event the defendant shall be confined at hard labor in the State Penitentiary for a term not exceeding forty years or less than five years at the discretion of the presiding judge.

SECTION 16-3-220. Lynching in the second degree.

Any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person and from which death does not result shall constitute the crime of lynching in the second degree and shall be a felony. Any person found guilty of lynching in the second degree shall be confined at hard labor in the State Penitentiary for a term not exceeding twenty years nor less than three years, at the discretion of the presiding judge.

SECTION 16-3-230. "Mob" defined.

A "mob" is defined for the purpose of this article as the assemblage of two or more persons, without color or authority of law, for the premeditated purpose and with the premeditated intent of committing an act of violence upon the person of another.

Source: South Carolina Code of Laws

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