(February 17, 1947). The murder of Willie Earle is believed to be the last racial lynching in South Carolina. On February 16, 1947, Earle, a twenty-five-year-old black man from Greenville, was arrested for the robbery and stabbing of a white Greenville taxi driver, Thomas Watson Brown. The next day a mob of thirty-five men abducted Earle from his cell in the Pickens County Jail and drove him to the outskirts of Greenville, where they lynched him. Earle’s body, badly mutilated from stab wounds in the chest and shotgun wounds in the head, was recovered the same day. Thomas Brown, the original stabbing victim, died hours after Earle. According to some contemporaries—including Earle’s mother, his neighbors, and the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Walter White—no evidence existed to link Earle to the murder of Brown.
Officials at the state and federal levels were quick to condemn the lynching and to pursue Earle’s murderers. South Carolina Governor J. Strom Thurmond immediately denounced mob violence and promised an investigation by state authorities. By the end of February, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, dispatched to Greenville by U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark, had obtained signed statements from twenty-six men who admitted their participation in the lynching. A Greenville County grand jury subsequently indicted thirty-one men—most of whom were taxi drivers—for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and accessory before and accessory after the fact of murder.
Begun on May 12, 1947, the Greenville lynching trial generated interest within South Carolina and throughout the nation. The simple fact that the trial took place was evidence of a changing racial order, as were the efforts of the presiding judge to make the proceedings as impartial as possible. Still, many white South Carolinians sympathized with the defendants, believing that the lynching was regrettable but probably unavoidable in light of the crime for which Earle was accused. After a trial of ten days, in which the defense declined to present any witnesses or evidence, the jury found the defendants not guilty on all counts. Appalled, the judge refused to thank the jury for their service.
The most significant legacy of the Earle case was to stimulate efforts on behalf of civil rights. According to leaders in the Progressive Democratic Party of South Carolina, the lynching strengthened the resolve of black Carolinians, a development that helped accelerate political activism throughout the state. The Earle case also influenced officials at the federal level, including President Harry S. Truman and members of his President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Exposing the limitations of state efforts to prevent mob violence and to promote racial equality, the Earle lynching and the acquittal of the lynch mob played a key role in convincing the Truman administration to take a stronger stand for federal action to defend civil rights.
Frederickson, Kari. “‘The Slowest State’ and ‘Most Backward Community’: Racial Violence in South Carolina and Federal Civil-Rights Legislation, 1946–1948.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 98 (April 1997): 177–202.
Gravely, Will. “Reliving South Carolina’s Last Lynching: The Witness of Tessie Earle Robinson.” South Carolina Review 29 (spring 1997): 4–17. West, Rebecca. “Opera in Greenville.” New Yorker 23 (June 14, 1947): 31–59.