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Rotten Fruit – South Carolina's Enduring Lynching Laws

Under an old anti-lynching statute, South Carolina prosecutors are targeting mainly young African Americans.
 
 
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In a bizarre twist, South Carolina has stood America's most disgraceful racial blot – lynching – on its head. State prosecutors are using an anti-lynching statute passed in 1951 to prosecute hundreds of mostly young blacks.

Under South Carolina law, the crime of lynching is defined solely as an act of violence by two or more persons against another, no matter the race of the victim. The statute was passed following national rage and embarrassment over the white mob murder of a black man accused of stabbing a white cab driver in 1947. It was clearly designed to protect blacks from white mob violence.

But with the plunge in racially motivated violence since the end of the civil rights era, legislators have kept the law on the books as a convenient and handy legal tool to fight crime, mob and gang violence. Prosecutors in the state claim that the law is race-neutral and does not target blacks. They say that more blacks are charged with lynching because they disproportionately commit more violent crimes than whites.

Yet a gaping racial disparity exists over who gets charged and prosecuted under the lynching law. According to an Associated Press analysis of crime statistics, blacks make up the majority of those charged with lynching, with nearly five times more blacks than whites prosecuted for it.

The racial gulf in prosecuting minors for lynching is even wider. In 2002, the number of black juveniles prosecuted for lynching was 10 times greater than the number of white youth.

One of those charged with lynching was NBA star Kevin Garnett, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. In 1994, Garnett, then a high school student in Greenville, S.C., and four other black youth were charged with second-degree lynching, which can carry a sentence of up to 20 years, after a fight in which the white victim fractured his ankle. The charges were eventually dropped, and Garnett's mother moved the family to Chicago.

Because of cases such as Garnett's, civil rights activists have lobbied state legislators to amend the law, and that means dropping the word "lynching" from crimes that are not explicitly racially motivated. Indeed, West Virginia, Virginia and California are the only other states that even have such a law on the books, and they are seldom if ever used.

Though a handful of the charges have involved brutal assaults, even murder, many more haven't. Blacks have been prosecuted for school fights, scuffles and minor assaults. As in the case of Garnett, more often than not the charges are later reduced, dismissed or overturned on appeal. There are certainly other laws on the books in the state that mandate stiff sentences for murder and violent assaults.

Prosecutors freely use the law to hammer mostly young blacks, a grotesque distortion of the history of lynching. White mob violence against blacks was a deliberate tool used to maintain white supremacy, not to punish crime.

South Carolina's racially warped lynching prosecutions run counter to the grudging efforts of some Southern officials to face up to the South's shameful past. In the past decade, state prosecutors in Alabama and Mississippi have convicted former Klansmen for the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 and for the murders of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers and Vernon F. Dahmer. They are also considering reopening a handful of old cases in the murders of blacks and civil rights workers during the 1960s.

Left unexamined and prosecuted are hundreds of lesser-known cases in which blacks were murdered. Between 1910 and 1960, the NAACP estimates that more than 4,000 persons were burned, shot and mutilated by lynch mobs. The overwhelming majority of them were black, murdered in the South by white mobs. They were victimized further by racially indifferent, often hostile state governments. South Carolina for a time was a national leader in the number of blacks lynched. Many were murdered following the flimsiest of allegations of rape or assault of a white person. The hideous image of black bodies hanging from trees was immortalized in song and legend as the South's "Strange Fruit."

The prosecution of young blacks in South Carolina for the centuries-old terror practice that victimized blacks, under a law that was enacted to protect them from that racial terror, trivializes the horror of lynching. South Carolina officials should do what civil rights activists demand – amend, or better yet, dump this archaic, misused statute.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson ( EHutchi344@aol.com) is a columnist and the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).