The Horrific Story of a Mob of White Cab Drivers Getting Away with Murder
The tragic 1947 event speaks to America's enduring history of racism and systemic corruption.
Defendants and family members in the courtroom celebrate after the jury passes down a not-guilty verdict during the Willie Earle Lynching Trial at the Greenville County Courthouse, Greenville, South Carolina, May 21, 1947. (Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
“He took my cab and my money,” T.W. Brown told a Liberty, South Carolina, cop as he lay bleeding just after 10 PM on a cool February night. Brown had been stabbed three times, severely beaten, and left to die off old Liberty-Pickens Road in suburban Pickens County, the Greenville News reported in 2003, some 56 years later. A 24-year-old African-American man, Willie Earle, was quickly arrested for the crime and held at the Pickens County jail. But even though lynching as an entrenched form of racist-vigilante justice had diminished in the state and, to some extent, the country, by 1947, the mindset wasn't going anywhere.
Soon after the arrest, dozens of white men, mostly fellow cab drivers of Brown determined to avenge the attack, abducted Earle from the jail and lynched him—beat him, stabbed him, shot him to death. But in this case, 31 of them were actually indicted for the crime, with the FBI having been sent in to investigate. Some form of justice for a despicable racist mob seemed at least vaguely plausible.
Then, after a nine-day trial that was covered by the national press, every remaining defendant was found not guilty by an all-white jury.
In his new book, They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim, University of Denver Professor Emeritus William Gravely, a native of Pickens County, explores the morose chapter in American history. VICE caught up with him to discuss how flaws in the investigation and prosecution helped bring on the acquittals, what the outcome meant for white supremacy in what might now be described as the waning days of Jim Crow, what notorious US Senator Storm Thurmond had to do with the case, and how this tragic event speaks to America's enduring history of racism and systemic corruption.
VICE: Why do you think the attack on T.W. Brown caused such a swift and violent uproar? He wasn't actually dead at the time of the lynching, right?
William Gravely: The official story had him picking up one, possibly two fares in Greenville, South Carolina, Saturday night, February 15, 1947. He was found by a Liberty, SC, farmer on the side of the road outside town. The pre-dawn abduction of Willie Earle from the Pickens jail occurred before Brown died—he was taken to St. Francis hospital in Greenville in critical condition—and before Earle had been questioned and charged. Brown died a few hours after the lynching. It was the attack on Brown and the seriousness of his injuries that triggered the men’s desire for revenge. Since the attack on Brown occurred late Saturday night, it was not even in local news until after the lynching.
There’d been no general uproar in public, only among Brown’s fellow-drivers (28 of the 31 defendants charged) who were aware of his precarious condition leading to his death. A number of contributing factors were at play: post WWII racial tensions with the return of African American soldiers, perennial tension between Greenville taxi drivers, city authorities, and police. And resentment among drivers in Brown’s Yellow Cab company about the electrocution of one of their coworkers in 1945: He'd been charged with rape and [they believed the case had been] contaminated by the prosecutor’s statement to the jury that if the cabman had been black, he would have been convicted in 15 minutes.
Was this kind of lynch mob really unexpected given the time and South Carolina’s history of racism? Was there any local pushback you came across in your work?
Defenders of the mob and the local press exaggerated the number of attacks on taxi operators beyond the facts on record. Earle’s being black contributed to the rage and desire for revenge. [But] for the mob to distrust law enforcement and the South Carolina criminal justice system, that was what was unexpected.
It seemed like Willie Earle was characterized in a way that might not be totally unfamiliar in bogus narratives about black men and crime today. Did he actually fit any of those negative stereotypes?
He had a limited education. He had health issues. He had a tendency to get drunk, which led to minor skirmishes with the law. I disconfirmed rumors that he was an arsonist, that he had a fight with his supervisor, and ended up in the state penitentiary. I contend that the rumors about Willie Earle beyond what I found emerged from an inclination to draw upon a stereotype of a violent black male—in this case [a] murderer, [though] more often it would have included a sexual offense. The public projected on to Earle behavior that he did not exhibit, as when Rebecca West [at the New Yorker] told the penitentiary story, perhaps from a local source mistakenly thinking of Frank Earl’s violence some months before. The specter of the black male criminal was common in South Carolina.
What flaws in the investigation and prosecution contributed to the acquittals, in your view?
The long history of how lynching was investigated, where arrests occurred, when trials took place, and the [general] absence of convictions shaped the worldview of everyone responding to these events. I emphasize the irony that what became the last lynching in South Carolina of its kind was only possible by repeating the historic pattern one final time. Four and a half days of intense interrogations of the accused was a highly celebrated event that led many to expect that a new day had come that February in the region’s and country’s response to lynching. But there were complex dynamics behind the scenes.
The FBI withdrew from the investigation within a week, leaving a long list of undeveloped leads and a claim that no civil rights violations had occurred “under color of law,” that is, connected to law enforcement and the Pickens jailer. The Justice Department expected that it was more important to identify the lynchers and to try them at the state level than to engage in a problematic pursuit of federal violations. The history of failed civil rights cases of this sort haunted the Bureau and the Attorney General.
There was little witness testimony. There was little evidence beyond the confessional statements read into the record and the conflicting and sometimes contradictory versions of the lynching were confusing. And there were no female or African American jurors. The case was tried in a segregated courtroom where the black press reporters had to go to the “colored balcony.”
To what extent did the acquittal represent a victory for white supremacy more generally at this point, before the Civil Rights Movement had really gained postwar traction?
In South Carolina, the 1940s was a roller-coaster experience for civil rights-oriented black citizens. They won lawsuits, even if their victories did not convert into reality for school-teacher equal pay, or to end the white primary that excluded black voters. They failed despite heroic attempts to unseat the all-white delegations to the Democratic conventions of 1944 and 1948. South Carolina created legal segregation and bolstered it by custom to maintain “good race relations” from the point of view of white folks. It took over two more decades to achieve successful school desegregation.
I guess I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised to see Senator Storm Thurmond involved with this case—and the way he was. Can you talk about that?
Thurmond had been inaugurated [as governor] the month before the lynching, but as a former circuit judge, state senator, and army veteran hero, he was not inclined to remain silent about the necessity to condemn lynching. He was forthright, a "law and order" man, and he promptly sent the state constables to aid the investigation. Thurmond remained silent after the verdicts came down and then echoed the anti-Yankee, neo-Confederate nationalism that was dramatized in the trial summations. Dixiecrat politics and presidential campaigning came natural to him.
I interviewed Thurmond in 1989. He was not comfortable calling what happened a lynching. He was more interested in talking about the cases he tried that required capital punishment. It was particularly valuable to have the accounts of his biracial daughter’s experience of his inauguration and private visits in Orangeburg during which she [at] first was proud of his anti-lynching stand. They argued about how he handled the outcome. His becoming the leader of the Dixiecrats soured her attitude.
How do you draw a line between a case like this one and what's going on in the so-called Trump era with racist violence, mass shootings, and white nationalism on the upswing?
"You rape our women and are taking over our country," Dylann Roof claimed [upon] murdering nine innocent people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2015, he was reiterating the classic false claim that dates back to the late 19th century: that black-on-white rape justifies violence. “Lynch’s law” was at one time a defense against the alleged epidemic of black-on-white rape. The long trajectory of White Over Black as detailed in Winthrop Jordan’s 1968 book still exists in America. 1865 ended slavery, but not racism.
White privilege still exists, even though one has to take account of the intersection of economic class, gender, and sexual orientation in dealing with diversity and inclusion. The color codes of race are not in the Declaration of Independence or the US Constitution. White is the only unchanged category in the census. The embracing of white nationalism, the Klan, anti-Semitism, and the demonization of refugees and immigrants has only recently publicly resurfaced, but these ideas are not new. Racism is not a harmless attitude or dislike of whoever “the other” is deemed to be. Racism is grounded in the commitment that “the other” is somehow defective, not in behavior or character, but in being alive.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Gravely's book here.