Strom Thurmond had been at home in the governor’s mansion less than a month when the phone rang early on the morning of Feb. 17, 1947, with the chilling news.
There had been a lynching in Pickens County. A 24-year-old black man named Willie Earle had been seized from the county jail by a mob, carried across the Greenville County line and beaten, stabbed, and blasted twice at close range with a shotgun.
There was no secret who the murderers were. A Greenville taxi driver named Thomas Watson Brown had been robbed and fatally stabbed in Pickens County on Feb. 15. Piecing together circumstantial evidence, authorities arrested Earle at his mother’s house the next day. That night, Greenville taxi drivers organized a convoy of cabs, drove to the Pickens County jail, demanded the prisoner, and murdered him.
The Willie Earle lynching was a horrible embarrassment to a state which sought to recast its image as a civilized, progressive province, suitable for investment and development. And it was an early challenge for Strom Thurmond, who — at that stage in his career — had cast himself as a racial moderate.
“I do not favor lynching and I shall exert every resource at my command to apprehend all persons who may be involved in such a flagrant violation of the law,” the governor declared in dispatching a state constable to Greenville County.
Within hours of the lynching, the U.S. Marshal and the FBI were involved in the investigation. Over the next four days, over 150 suspects were questioned before authorities charged 31 men — 28 eight of them taxi drivers, all of them white. Most of the men signed confessions; several of their statements identified Roosevelt Carlos Hurd as the leader of the mob and the man who killed Earle with the shotgun.
Over the next weeks, Time and Newsweek magazines praised Thurmond’s decisive action against racial violence. Newspapers in Greenville and around the South condemned lynching. But in markets and restaurants throughout the Upstate, white businesses put out jars to collect money for the legal defense of the taxi drivers.
The eyes of the nation and the world were on the Greenville County Courthouse as the lynching trial opened on May 5, 1947. The New Yorker sent Dame Rebecca West to cover the trial. Life magazine had a reporter and photographer in the courtroom and ran a major photo spread of the proceedings. Wire services carried the story from coast to coast and in Europe. Reporters from Northern black newspapers were allowed into the packed and sweltering courtroom but were forced to sit in the upper gallery.
Relying on a quaint eccentricity of state law, wives and children of the 31 defendants sat with their men in the front of the courtroom, attempting to demonstrate their wholesome, stalwart nature. West wrote that the arrangement gave the proceedings the atmosphere of a church picnic.
Throughout the two-week trial, defense attorneys pandered to the basest prejudices and fears of the jury. At one point, an attorney announced to the jury, “Willie Earle is dead and I wish more like him was dead.”
Wrote West: “There was a delighted giggling, almost coquettish response from the defendants and some of the spectators … A more disgusting incident could not have happened in any court of law at any time.”
One cab driver who had refused to go along with the lynch party was called by the state to identify some of the men who did. He was later beaten and forced to leave town.
The prosecution rested and the defense refused to call any witnesses. On the afternoon of May 21, Judge J. Robert Martin gave his charge to the jury. Five hours and thirteen minutes later, the 12 good men and true had reached their verdicts: not guilty on all counts.
Pandemonium broke out on the floor of the courtroom after the verdicts were read; in the gallery above, there was stunned silence.
When order was restored, Judge Martin, shaken and angry, informed the jury where they could pick up their fees for service. Then he stood, turned his back on the jury and left the courtroom without the customary courtesy of thanking them for their service.
Willie Earle’s was the last lynching in South Carolina, but hardly the last lynching in the South. James Ford Seale was arrested last month in the 1964 kidnapping and murder of two black youths in Mississippi. In recent years, authorities have won convictions in the 1963 assassination of NAACP activist Medgar Evers; the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four black girls; and the 1964 Philadelphia, Miss., slayings of three civil rights workers. But the murderers of Willie Earle will never be punished. They had their day in court and the jury found that killing a black man in South Carolina was not a crime.