In what’s being seen as an attempt at redemption by a state touched by recent political embarrassment, a panel of South Carolina lawmakers has voted to change the state’s lynching law.
Why? Ostensibly because prosecutors had abused it to put bar-fight participants in prison for up to 20 years. But the real issue ran even deeper, a key lawmaker acknowledges: For decades, the law has been used to address African-American gang activity, with over half of all lynching charges and convictions being levied against blacks.
The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission voted Monday to rename the law “assault and battery by a mob” and to soften consequences for situations in which no one was killed or seriously injured in an attack by two or more people on a single victim.
The emotional and historical power of the word “lynching” – especially in the Deep South, where the majority of lynchings happened – has long been seen by critics as especially cruel when applied to instances in which black men are arrested.
'Lynching is a particular type of crime'
“Lynching is a particular type of crime that has been recognized socially and by the state as having certain distinct attributes, and so the [South Carolina lynching law] is a corruption not only of the idea of what a lynching is, but also the historical memory of what a lynching is,” says University of North Carolina history Prof. Fitzhugh Brundage, who has written on black historical memory in the South since the Civil War.
“If three juveniles beating on another juvenile who’s a member of another school gang is considered a lynching, then lynching is absolutely pervasive in America,” he adds.
The South Carolina lynching law has been used to prosecute both blacks and whites, but came under fire in 2003 when the Associated Press reported that it was being frequently used and that 69 percent of its targets were young black men, and 67 percent of those convicted for lynching were black.
Critics point out that Deep South states were never so aggressive in pursuing lynching charges when blacks in the South feared actual mob killings in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Lynching law a tool to fight gang crime?
For law enforcement agencies, however, the law had become an effective tool to fight urban gang crime. Former Charleston, S.C., police chief Reuben Greenberg, the city’s first black chief, told the AP that he had used it many times, primarily to control gang problems in the old port city.
Trey Walker, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry McMaster, told the AP in 2003 that since there’s no mention of race in the statue, “The law is colorblind.”
But that explanation didn’t ring true with the Sentencing Reform Commission, whose changes still have to be approved by the legislature.
“It was brought to our attention that, ‘Look, this name has a negative connotation and people are being charged with something that really has nothing to do with what people perceive to be lynching,’ “ says Rep. Murrell Smith, the Republican chairman of the reform commission.
Passed in 1951 after the brutal mob killing of taxi driver Willie Earle, who was dragged out of a county jail in Greenville, S.C., and murdered, the law was both a political response and, in all likelihood, a way to preempt what many knew what would eventually come – the 1968 federal antilynching law.
While the law’s modern application may be “grotesque,” as Professor Brundage puts it, the fact is that South Carolina was the one Deep South state to actually fight back against lynchings during the years of the brutal practice.
Other states had many more lynchings
To be sure, iSouth Carolina Gov. Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a Democrat, provided the modern archetype of the angry and racist white man, calling his political opponents “white Negroes,” chastising the elite, and defending mob justice. But Georgia, Texas, and Mississippi saw many more lynchings than did the Palmetto State. And while the first lynching conviction came in Georgia in the early 20th century, it involved a white man convicted of hanging another white man. South Carolina prosecutors became the first ones in the South to use an anti-ynching law in the mid-1920s to give redress to the family of a black man lynched while county authorities looked the other way.
Still, in the wake of the long-running controversy over the Confederate flag on the state capitol grounds, Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” outburst during President Obama’s healthcare speech to Congress, and Gov. Mark Sanford’s brush with impeachment over an affair with a woman in Argentina, some commentators see in the changes to the lynching law a growing sensitivity among lawmakers over the state’s national profile and reputation.
“South Carolina has been embarrassed by a series of racially tinged scandals, and to look at South Carolina as a place where they’re prosecuting African-Americans for lynching of all things, how’s that going to look and play in terms of national politics and national PR?” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and the author of the upcoming book “How Obama Governed: The year of crisis and challenge.”
“It seems that South Carolina is beginning to come to grips and wrestle with this black eye and realize that this is an embarrassing law,” he says.
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