Seventy years ago, South Carolina became host to the youngest execution in the United States in the 20th Century. George Stinney was arrested on suspicion of murdering two girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8, in Alcolu, South Carolina in Clarendon County on March 23, 1944. Alcolu was a small, working class, mill town, where whites and blacks were separated by railroad tracks. The girls had disappeared while out riding their bicycles looking for flowers. As they passed the Stinney property, they asked young George Stinney and his sister, Katherine, if they knew where to find “maypops”, a local name for passionflowers. When the girls did not return, search parties were organized, with hundreds of volunteers. The bodies of the girls were found the next morning in a ditch filled with muddy water. Both had suffered severe head wounds.
On June 16th, less than two months after the initial arrest, George Stinney at age 14 took his last breath on Earth. With no physical evidence, a jury of 12 white adults, a two hour and thirty minute trial and no defense witnesses, George was found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair.
South Carolina Governor Olin Johnston could have given Stinney life in prison if he wanted. He had 54 days between the time the black teen was convicted of killing two white girls and his march to the electric chair with a Bible in his arm.
But Johnston was running for U.S. Senate in 1944, facing a challenger who took a much harder line on segregation. He refused clemency for Stinney, saying he trusted the police, prosecutor and jury. At 14, Stinney was the youngest person executed in this country in the past 100 years, according to statistics gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center.
In a time of extreme racial separation, a country torn by World War II and a political agenda, a young man had his life taken from him by a political system that wanted justice and was blinded by prejudice, color differentiation and ambition.
Here are a few key facts you should know about this case:
- The prosecution called only three witnesses: The police officer that found the bodies of the two girls and the two doctors that performed the autopsy.
- The execution happened during the final stages of World War II and just after the Invasion of Normandy and potentially drawing national attention away from this case.
- The defense did not call any witnesses.
- The trial lasted 2 ½ hours
- The deliberation lasted 10 minutes
- The jury consisted of all white adults due to segregation laws at the time.
- George was arrested by police when his mother was not home.
- The bible he had when he was walking to the electric chair was used as a booster because he could not reach the head gear.
- On October 25, 2013, Steve McKenzie, Ray Chandler and Matt Burgess of Coffey, Chandler & McKenzie, P.A filed a motion to reopen the case and clear the name of George Stinney
In 1955, Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till, a black teenager, age 14 from Chicago, Illinois, went to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. During a trip to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market with some friends, he whistled at a twenty-one year old white woman named Carolyn Bryant, the wife of the store’s owner. The events at the store spread around town and eventually to Mr. Bryant. Ms. Bryant claimed Till grabbed her by the waist and spoke dirty towards her.
Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Bryant’s husband Roy and her brother-in-law J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, tortured, gouged his eye out and shot Emmett. Emmett’s mangled body was found a few days later. A local jury acquitted Milam and Bryant of murder, but the pair later acknowledged that they had slain the fourteen-year-old Till.
Born July 25, 1941 and killed on August 28, 1955, Emmett Till only witnessed 14 short years on this Earth before his life was brutally taken from him for the crime of a complimentary whistle at an older white woman in the South.
Two incidences, eleven years apart in South Carolina and Mississippi respectively, taking the lives of two young men who would not live to see age 15 still remain a vital part of Southern history. Both young mean were victims of a time when the color of your skin determined your place in the world. Have we learned our lessons from the past and cleared our minds to the idea of equality, community, compassion and love? Only time will tell.