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E.R. McKinney

It Is a Crime to Be a Negro
in Greenville ...

(2 June 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 22, 2 June 1947, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is at least one happy and self-satisfied city in the United States. This is Greenville, S.C. Greenville is a small textile manufacturing community where the wages are low, where Northern textile companies can find cheap water power, favorable real estate situations and an abundance of “cheap white labor.” The IQ of Greenville, as of all South Carolina, isn’t very high because of the traditional habits of the country: the absence of good schools, low wages and poverty, rickets, hook worm and the constant longing for the good old days when some white men could sit on their verandas and drink mint juleps while other white men, with no mint juleps, were happy in the thought that they were superior to the black slaves in the cotton fields.

Despite all this, Greenville is happy and satisfied,for 12 white men, “good and true,” have refused to listen to the advice and instructions of a judge who told them very painstakingly what murder and conspiracy are and what their duty was in a case where it was admitted on all sides that a Negro had been slashed, mutilated and shot to death by 28 white men. Despite the fact that the 28 white men had confessed and that no one denied that these 28 white men had murdered a Negro, Willie Earle, the 12 white men of the jury said that the 28 were not guilty. That is, they were not guilty of murder; although Willie Earle was dead and the 28 admitted they had taken him from the “jailhouse” and killed him; they were not guilty of conspiracy although they had conspired together to take Earle from jail and kill him; they were not accessories before or after the fact although they had planned the killing and had carried it out according to the plan and had protected each other after the killing had taken place.

And so Greenville is happy, the 28 are happy and feel themselves to be men of great importance. They have been and are being honored by their fellow townsmen as leading citizens who have done their city and the state of South Carolina some service. It is not often that such humble citizens as taxi drivers are so signally honored.

Crime in the South

I said that Greenville is happy and satisfied but that statement is not really precise. There are some human beings in Greenville who are not happy: the Negroes.

They are not happy because they are not free and because they know that any day any one of them may be dragged off to the woods by fellow human beings, clubbed, mutilated and shot to death. They know that such may be their fate, irrespective of whether they have committed any crime. While they are aware that everyone is by law entitled to be considered innocent until he or she is proved guilty, they know that this is not the procedure applied to Negroes. All some man, woman or child need do is to call out that a Negro has done something to have a mob rise and perpetrate a lynching. The white mob is not interested in guilt or guiltlessness. They only need to know that something has happened to a white man or woman and that it was done by a Negro or was REPORTED to have been done by a Negro.

The crime, if there be one, is not rape or murder or assault, but being a Negro. Being a Negro, that is crime to the white South. Being a Negro who attacks a white man is only a compounding of the crime. Above all, to be a Negro who is ‘‘uppity,” that is . being a Negro who strives to live like a human being and be treated as one. In the white South this is the Negro who ought to be dead. That is what the white mob is for: to do to death or to intimidate all Negroes who are not “good Negroes.”

He may be a very obscure Negro who defends himself; it may be some Negro who demands “his rights,” who insists on decent schools for his children, who fights for a decent job or a decent house, or for the right to vote, or to join a union. These are all “uppity” Negroes in the eyes of the white South.

And so, the Negroes of Greenville cannot be happy; it is only the white folk who can celebrate.

One hundred Negroes attended the trial in Greenville, sitting in the Jim Crow gallery. They were not fit to be in the same place with the white lynchers. While the jury was deliberating, their number dwindled to 13. These 13 were guarded, for safety reasons, by four deputy sheriffs. The state perhaps feared that if the jury came in with any sort of conviction, there might be a lynching in the courthouse balcony.

I suppose that all but the 13 left because they too feared harm should there be a conviction. One might say that the 13 who remained were the more courageous. They may have been courageous but that is not necessarily why they stayed on. It is more probable that they were the wiser or at least the skeptical. It is probable that these 13 Negroes were fully convinced that there would be an acquittal. They know their state and its white people. They heard the awful and bestial appeals of the lawyers for the defense. These Negroes know the white South. Perhaps they are untutored and illiterate. I don’t know. But I do know that education and literacy are necessary in order to understand human meanness, to understand brutish ignorance and downright savagery. That is what these. Negroes live in the midst of and they know this thoroughly. They have felt the hurt on their own bodies, it has been burned into their consciousness, their lives have been seared by this inhumanity.

The Negroes in that South Carolina courtroom must have listened to the attack of the prosecuting attorney and the way the judge conducted the trial, including his charge to the jury, with mixed feelings of doubt and hope. Doubt that the jury was listening and hope that somehow just a little light would penetrate their dull, prejudiced and warped minds. They were disappointed or not disappointed according to their point of view.

I am convinced of one thing; they were not surprised at the orgy conducted by the lynchers nor at the oratorical orgy of the defense lawyers. They have heard it before and will hear it again: “White man,” “nigger,” “Northern meddling,” “our fair Southland,” “God,” “states rights” and all the rest.

Greenville is happy. The 28 “not guilty” murderers are happy. One of them is so happy and satisfied that he has announced he will “run for sheriff” at the next election. I ask: is this a man or some lower animal which has learned to talk? Are these people human beings or merely things which somehow have acquired the power of speech?

Following the triumph of “white supremacy” in Greenville, a Negro in North Carolina accused (not indicted) of rape was taken from jail by a white mob. He escaped and hid away in the home of a. friend. Later he surrendered to the FBI and is now in jail. The majesty of the law, such as it is in North Carolina, will be invoked. No matter what happens to him, the basic pattern will be the same as at Greenville. The speeches will be the same, the procedure the same and after the trial, no, matter what the outcome, North Carolina will go on as before, with its Jim Crow, its poverty, ignorance and mob violence.

The Southern and Northern liberals, too, the “right thinking” white people, will go on as before with their inane jubilations that “a start has been made,” that “law and order” are making their way. All decent people, of course, will welcome any improvement, no matter how small. We have to do this in the case of the South, which for decades has shown np tendency toward any real improvement in the direction of becoming at least semi-civilized.

But what lies at the bottom of the bestiality of the South cannot be wiped out by fine words or by the babblings of the liberals. The South must be plowed under, ripped apart, reconstructed and made over. The lead will have to be taken by Southerners – black and white Southern toilers working together against the mob. That’s what black and white working together in the South means: fighting together against the mob. Fighting together for food, clothing, a home to live in; for wages, freedom, education. All of this fighting will be against the mob, because the lynch mob is the symbol of the South, its insignia, its coat of arms.

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