Saturday, May 17, 2003

JENKINSVILLE, S.C. (AP) — From the time his son was old enough to understand, Kamau Marcharia has been telling Ramon the story of an ancestor who was tied to the bumper of a Model T Ford and dragged to his death.

Lynching is part of black Southerners’ heritage.

But Mr. Marcharia was not prepared for the call that came three years ago when Ramon and three other black boys got into a fight with a white boy at middle school and were summoned to court — to answer charges of lynching.

“I didn’t even know there was a law like that,” the veteran civil rights activist says. “I was outraged. See, a 13-year-old fighting because somebody either pushed him or punched him is not lynching. …

“When I hear that term, psychologically I cannot get that out of my mind, the picture of some horrible event.”

South Carolina’s lynching law, the only one of four in the nation that is still routinely used, was enacted to end the state’s long history of white vigilante justice against blacks. But that law has borne strange fruit.

Today in South Carolina, blacks are most often the ones charged with lynching — defined in the statute as any act of violence by two or more people against another, regardless of race.

Though they make up just 30 percent of the state’s population, blacks account for 63 percent of the lynching charges, according to an Associated Press analysis of crime statistics.

For every 1,000 blacks in South Carolina, 2.07 were charged with lynching, compared with 0.46 charged per 1,000 whites.

Prosecutors and police argue there is no racial profiling behind the law’s application, noting that blacks are charged with other violent crimes more often than whites.

But its the use of the word lynching that trips Mr. Marcharia and others.

“Obviously, the law has outlived its purpose,” said J. Wayne Flynt, a professor of Southern history at Auburn University. “Its intent was to stop extralegal violence, essentially aimed at blacks.”

For many, the term “lynching” conjures specific images — of black men, accused of some real or perceived crime, pulled from jail cells by torch-carrying white mobs, hanged from trees and mutilated.

When South Carolina’s Legislature passed its anti-lynching law in 1951, it was responding to just such a case — the highly publicized murder of Willie Earle, who was dragged out of jail by a white mob and gunned down in retaliation for the death of a cabbie.

Between 1998 and 2002, 446 persons in Greenville County were charged with lynching. Blacks make up 18 percent of the county’s population; they accounted for 47 percent of the lynching defendants whose race was specified.

At the other end of the state lies Charleston, where nearly half of the black slaves entering the country arrived.

Charleston County charges more blacks with lynching than any other — 271 in the past five years. That county is 34 percent black; blacks accounted for 69 percent of those charged.

Of the nearly 4,000 adults charged by police with lynching since 1998, only 136 have been convicted of that offense.

Most such charges are amended to assault or dismissed in court. But of those convicted, blacks account for 67 percent — twice the rate of whites.

“It’s ironic at least,” said William Gravely, a University of Denver history professor and former resident of Greenville County when Earle was lynched. “In one sense it’s a kind of denial of the large historical record going back to the late 19th century.”

It’s worse than ironic to Tom Broadwater, a former lawyer who travels the country with an exhibit of photographs showing the horror of lynchings.

When Mr. Broadwater practiced law in South Carolina, he represented many fellow blacks on lynching charges. Most, he said, stemmed from what he considered simple assaults.

“There’s an attempt to minimize the seriousness which the word ‘lynching’ carries with it,” Mr. Broadwater said.

Of course, some lynching charges in South Carolina have involved brutal attacks, and the penalties for convictions are stiff — up to 40 years for first-degree lynching, involving a death, and 20 years for second-degree.

The only other states with lynching statutes still on the books are California, Virginia and West Virginia, though the laws are rarely used.

Although Greenville County is home to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, it remains the only county in the state without an official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Whites there are charged with lynching more often than blacks, but a 1994 case involving black youths is notable.

Kevin Garnett, who would go on to star in the NBA, was 1994’s Mr. Basketball when he and four other black youths at Mauldin High School were charged with second-degree lynching for a fight in which the white victim suffered a fractured ankle.

After they went through a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders, the charges were dropped.

Soon afterward, Garnett’s mother moved her family to the Chicago suburbs.

So when Garnett became the first player in 20 years to go straight from high school to the NBA, it was from Chicago’s Farragut Academy, not Mauldin High.

Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg isn’t surprised that blacks are charged with lynching twice as often as whites. In his jurisdiction, it’s like that with just about all crimes.

Chief Greenberg — a descendant of Southern blacks and Russian Jews — said he was surprised at the local usage of the term lynching when he arrived in Charleston 22 years ago. But now he’s been enforcing the law for two decades, mainly as a tool against gang activity.

“I’m not consumed by the race issue,” Chief Greenberg said. “The historical meaning of the thing has no effect on me whatever. We’re beyond it.”

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