By David W. Marshall
In every child’s life, there comes a point where innocence succumbs to life’s cruelty and pain. It is the moment when the child starts to become aware of the cold-hearted world in which we live. “It takes a village to raise a child” is the African proverb that means that an entire community of people must provide for and interact positively with children for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. It means we care for children even when the child is not our own. It also means that, as adults, we make sacrifices for the child’s welfare. So many times, the failure of the “village” destroys a child’s innocence and life.
The senseless death of any child, regardless of race or class, is heartbreaking, yet it never ends. In 1944, the death of three children from Alcolu, South Carolina, reminds us of how children are affected by America’s long history of violence, its hate-driven criminal and judicial systems, and the cruel influence of people with power. Mary Emma Thames, 7, and Betty June Binnicker, 11, were murdered by severe blunt force trauma to the face and head, while George Stinney Jr., 14, was executed by the electric chair. Stinney was the youngest person in the United States to be sentenced to death and executed in the 20th century. Thames, Binnicker, and Stinney were like any typical kid, but, Stinney, who was Black, was accused of murdering the two girls who were white. For decades, civil rights lawyers have cited the George Stinney case as one of the most blatant examples of racially biased justice, yet it is a widely unknown story.
Binnicker and Thames’ bodies were found in a ditch after the girls had failed to return home the night before. The two girls were last seen alive riding their bikes looking for flowers when they saw Stinney and his younger sister near their home. The two girls asked Stinney if he knew where they could find flowers. After police learned from a witness that Binnicker and Thames were seen talking to Stinney, the 14-year-old was arrested while his parents were not home. He was interrogated alone for hours without the presence of his parents or an attorney. Police later claimed that Stinney confessed to the murders, but according to his sister Aime, she was with him when the crime occurred. Stinney’s parents did not see him before or during the trial due to the threat of attack or lynching. Detained in jail 50 miles away in Columbia, Stinney was isolated and alone with no support from his family during his confinement and trial. Stinney’s family maintained he was innocent, insisting that their son was too small to commit such a crime and too naïve to handle the pressure put on him by law enforcement officials.
The George Stinney story is typical of Jim Crow justice, where he was tried before a jury of all white men. While whites crowded the courtroom, Blacks were not allowed to enter. His court-appointed counsel was a tax commissioner who never challenged the police officers who testified that Stinney confessed to the two murders, nor did he challenge the prosecution’s presentation of two contradictory versions of Stinney’s verbal confession. Stinney’s counsel did not cross-examine witnesses or call any witnesses on his behalf. The 14-year-old had no defense, with the trial presentation lasting only two and a half hours. After deliberating for fewer than 10 minutes, the jury found Stinney guilty of murder.
On the same day, the judge sentenced him to death by electrocution. No trial transcripts still exist, and Stinney’s counsel filed no appeal. He was able to see his parents on one occasion after the trial. Electric chairs were not made for children. Standing at 5 feet, one inch tall, and weighing 95 pounds, George Stinney was too small for the adult-size electric chair. The mask and the straps were also too big to contain him. In less than three months, a 14-year-old child was charged with murder, tried, convicted, and executed by the state of South Carolina. His family buried him in an unmarked grave, fearing vengeful whites would vandalize it.
Cruelty has become so accepted and normalized that even innocent children will not be safe and protected from death if it goes against safeguarding the interest of those with wealth and power. While they took 10 minutes to convict him, it took 70 years to exonerate him. Rumors about the actual culprit had long traveled through Alcolu’s tight-knit Black communities. An alternate version of who killed the girls said the culprit was a well-to-do white man whose father had steered blame onto Stinney and away from his son. The real killer was never brought to justice. The fact that two girls suffered a horrific death and people knowingly punished the wrong person because of his race is an injustice and insult to those young girls’ lives.
Some would say times are different now. While it is true we are no longer living in the Jim Crow era, we are still living in a world where powerful people of influence can be cruel. The senseless deaths of children resulting from mass shootings in schools continue because the interest and greed of the NRA will always be protected. Protected by elected lawmakers and defended even by parents whose own children could one day be killed in a future mass shooting.
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