By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
George Junius Stinney Jr. was born on October 21, 1929. He would have celebrated his 82nd birthday this Friday, but he did not live to see his 15th birthday. He was executed in South Carolina’s electric chair on June 16, 1944.
The 5 foot 1 inch tall, 95 pound 14-year-old African American male child was arrested on March 23, 1944 accused of killing two White girls (11 and eight years old) with a rail-road spike. His trial, including jury selection, lasted just one day. The authorities said that he confessed to killing the two girls although there are no written records of a confession.
Stinney’s court-appointed attorney was a tax commissioner preparing to run for office.
There was no court challenge to the testimony of the three White police officers who claimed that Stinney had confessed although that was the only evidence presented. Three witnesses were called for the prosecution; a White man who “found” the bodies of the two girls and the two White doctors who performed the post mortem. No witnesses were called for the defence.
The trial lasted from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. One report about the trial stated: “The jury retired at five minutes before five to deliberate. Ten minutes later it returned with its verdict: guilty, with no recommendation for mercy.”
No legal appeals were filed on Stinney’s behalf although the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), some church groups and labour unions appealed to the governor of South Carolina to stop the execution. No African Americans were allowed in the courtroom for the trial.
Stinney’s father was fired from his job and his parents were given the choice of leaving town or being lynched. The family was forced to flee, leaving the 14-year-old child helpless with no support and in the clutches of a White supremacist system bent on his demise.
According to the records, it was standing room only in the courtroom (on April 24, 1944) with well over 1,500 White spectators. This was reminiscent of scenes where African American men, women and children were lynched for the entertainment of White men, women and children who gathered to watch the Black bodies twitch as they swung from trees until the life left them. It may just as well have been a lynching with his body hanging from a tree.
This African American male child, small for his age, had to sit on a stack of large books in the electric chair so that electrodes could be attached to his head. Stinney, at 14, is the youngest person to have been executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. It has been reported that during the electrocution, the electric shock that shook his small frame knocked the adult size mask off his head as tears streamed down his face which was contorted in the throes of death.
As in the case of Lena Baker who was executed by the state of Georgia in a dreadful miscarriage of justice and received a posthumous pardon in 2005, now, 67 years after his execution, there is a campaign on to clear Stinney’s name. In an article published January 18, 2010 by the Associated Press the story of the attempt to exonerate Stinney included this information: “A community activist is now fighting to clear Stinney’s name, saying the young Black boy couldn’t have killed the two White girls.
George Frierson, a 56-year-old member of the school board and a textile inspector, believes Stinney’s confession was coerced, and that his execution was just another injustice Blacks suffered in Southern courtrooms in the first half of the 1900s.
South Carolina lawyers Steve McKenzie, Shaun Kent and Ray Chandler are supporting Frierson in the fight to obtain a posthumous pardon for Stinney.
In 2011 Canada, young African Canadian males may not be at risk of execution in the electric chair but they are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Many African Canadian youth who should not have been captured by the system are trapped there because of their race.
The recent case (August 12, 2011) of a 6′ tall, 60-year-old African Canadian man who was locked in a cruiser and aggressively interrogated by a White female police officer who thought he fit the profile of a suspect described as “Black, in his 20s and 5′ 6″ illustrates this. Although the 60-year-old reportedly showed the police officer the long scar from his recent (May 2011) heart transplant surgery she refused to believe he was not the suspect.
If this is happening to a 60-year-old imagine what the experiences of the youth are. Those in our community who work with youth trapped in the criminal justice system have told some horror stories of what they have witnessed.
With this happening in 2011 imagine what happened to African Canadians at the time Stinney was executed in South Carolina and even before. While White Canadians believe the myth of a post-racial Canada and point accusing fingers at their relatives in the U.S., the reality is very different for racialized people in Canada, especially African Canadians. Even if Stinney had been born in Canada the chances are that he would have met a similar fate at that time on this side of the border.
In the novel, George and Rue, published in 2005, Dr. George Elliot Clarke wrote about the execution of brothers George Hamilton (23) and Rufus (22) in Fredericton, New Brunswick on July 27, 1949. The Hamilton brothers were found guilty of killing a White taxi driver as they robbed him.
George and Rue is a fictionalized work about the lives of two young men who travel from their birth place in Nova Scotia to Fredericton, New Brunswick, a town in which, even though African Canadians lived there, they were found to be “too suspiciously White to be trusted”. The character, Rue, was so disturbed by the Whiteness of the town that he “schemed to apply black paint to the statue of Bobby Burns on the Green – either that or smash it to bits”.
In telling the story of George and Rufus Hamilton Clarke humanizes the two young men whose lives were reduced to a criminal act and the revenge of the White society that surrounded them. At the end of the book Clarke writes of a similar crime committed by two White men in Quebec just six months (December 1949) after the Hamilton brothers were executed in New Brunswick. However, these two White men went a step further, they bought guns and ammunition with the stolen money and went on to rob a bank. The two White men were not executed because, as Clarke writes in George and Rue, “Ninety minutes before their hangings, word came their sentences’d been commuted to life in prison. George and Rue – black – had no such white luck.”