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Critics Say S. Carolina Perverts Lynch Law

Blacks are far more likely than whites to be charged with the crime, analysis shows. Statute was enacted to end white vigilante justice.

May 18, 2003|Allen G. Breed | Associated Press Writer

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

Lynching is part of black Southerners' heritage.

But Marcharia was not prepared for the call that came three years ago when Ramon 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 said. "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 as any act of violence by two or more people against another, regardless of race.

Although they make up just 30% of the state's population, blacks account for 63% of the lynching charges, according to an Associated Press analysis.

For every 1,000 blacks in South Carolina, 2.07 were charged with lynching, compared with 0.46 charged per 1,000 whites -- meaning that blacks are charged with lynching at 4 1/2 times the rate for whites.

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 constitute 8% of the residents but 44% of those charged with lynching.

Prosecutors and police argue that 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," said J. Wayne Flynt, professor of Southern history at Auburn University. "Its intent was to stop extralegal violence, essentially aimed at blacks."

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

When South Carolina's legislature passed its anti-lynching law in 1951, it was responding to 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 cabby.

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

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

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

Of the nearly 4,000 adults charged with lynching since 1998, only 136 have been convicted. Most such charges are amended to assault or dismissed in court. But of those convicted, blacks account for 67% -- twice the rate of whites.

During the same five-year period, nearly 1,400 juvenile lynching charges were filed; it was unclear how many of those ended up in adult court.

Still, the statistics suggest that the racial gap among minors is even wider than for adults. In 2002, the only year for which a breakdown was immediately available, 231 black youths were charged with lynching -- more than 10 times the number of white juveniles.

"It's ironic at least," said William Gravely, a University of Denver history professor who was 7 and 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.

Of course, some lynching charges in South Carolina have involved brutal attacks, and the penalties for convictions are stiff -- up to 40 years or death for first-degree lynching, involving a death, and 20 years for second-degree.

In 1996, a white couple in Clarendon County were charged with lynching after 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. They were convicted of aggravated assault and served less than two years.

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