Lynching of Willie Earle
The lynching of Willie Earle took place in Greenville, South Carolina on February 16, 1947 when Willie Earle, a 24-year-old black man, was arrested, taken from his jail cell and murdered. It is considered the last racially motivated lynching to occur in South Carolina. The subsequent trial gained much media attention, and was covered by Rebecca West for The New Yorker. The trial resulted in the acquittal of 31 white men who had been charged with Earle's murder.
Arrest and lynching
On February 15, a Greenville cab driver named Thomas Watson Brown was robbed and stabbed to death in Pickens County. Based on circumstantial evidence, Earle was charged in Brown's attack, and was arrested at his mother's house the next day and taken to the county jail. On the evening of February 16, a convoy of taxi drivers drove to the jail and forcibly procured Earle's release. They beat, stabbed and shot Earle to death.
Strom Thurmond, the newly elected governor of the state, condemned the murder. Thurmond directed state police to work alongside the FBI, and summoned South Carolina's foremost prosecutor, Solicitor Robert T. Ashmore to try the case. More than 150 suspects were questioned in the days after Earle's murder, and 31—all but three of whom were taxi drivers—were charged with the crime. Many of the men signed confessions and some of them implicated Roosevelt Carlos Hurd as the mob's leader as well as the one who killed Earle with a shotgun.
The trial opened in the Greenville County Courthouse on May 5, 1947, and was presided over by Judge J. Robert Martin. The jury consisted of 12 white men. In addition to West's coverage for The New Yorker, Life Magazine was represented by a reporter and photographer, and national and international wire services were present in the courtroom.
The trial lasted two weeks, during which time the defendants were permitted to sit with their families; the effect, according to West, was that of a "church picnic." Defense attorney John Bolt Culbertson proclaimed that "Willie Earle is dead and I wish more like him was dead." The defense called no witnesses, and the jury convened on the afternoon of May 21. After five hours and 13 minutes, they returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts. Judge Martin was described as "shaken and angry", and left the courtroom without thanking the jury for its service.
On May 23, The New York Times editorialized "There has been a victory for law, even though Willie Earle's slayers will not be punished for what they did. A precedent has been set. Members of lynching mobs may now know that they do not bask in universal approval, even in their own disgraced communities, and they may begin to fear that someday, on sufficient evidence and with sufficient courage, a Southern lynching case jury will convict."
In 1950, lawyers from the NAACP, citing a provision dated 1895 in the state constitution that assessed financial responsibility for a lynching, won a settlement from Greenville County in the amount of $3,000 on behalf of Earle's family. The same year, then state representative Fritz Hollings wrote an anti-lynching bill that was signed into law, specifying the death penalty as punishment for lynching. "No further lynchings occurred in South Carolina."
- Moredock 2007
- Bass and Poole 2012
- Christopher Waldrep, Racial Violence on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents, 227
- Culbertson, considered a 'liberal lion' in South Carolina, later called this "the only instance that I have ever been ashamed of my role as attorney." Culbertson papers, South Carolina Political Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, page 4
- The Good Fight, the Last Lynching, Will Moredock, The Charleston City Paper, February 14, 2007
- The Palmetto State: The Making of Modern South Carolina, Jack Bass, W. Scott Poole, University of South Carolina Press, Jun 5, 2012
- Gravely, William B. (2019). They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina's Last Lynching Victim. University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 9781611179385.