Forgiveness, Mercy, Revenge Blog Post 4: Two Racist Killings Under Jim Crow

[sexual assault, hate murders]

I’ve finished the draft for my first essay, “Shall We Not Revenge?” That paper argues that it can be morally permissible to take revenge, and offers guidelines to make revenge less risky. I’m currently working on an essay which ties together the philosophy of anger and revenge with what I’ve learned about criminal law over the past few months.
The law facilitates revenge in at least two ways. First, it may directly punish people whom those in power would like to harm. Second, it may protect avengers, and thus send the message that it is acceptable for people in the same circumstances to take revenge. Neither of these is necessarily evil. Organizations which support rape survivors often advocate more severe punishments for rapists, for reasons which I consider to be at least partly vengeful. Beyond that, many courts have acquitted or granted lesser sentences to people who killed their abusers, even when the letter of the law says they should be convicted of murder. Very often, however, our legal system facilitates cruel and unjust revenge. In this post, I will discuss the similarities between two unjust killings of black children living under Jim Crow. Considered together, I believe that these cases demonstrate how the technology of law can be contorted to serve the ends of white supremacy and other ideologies of terror.

In 1955, two white men abducted Emmett Till from his uncle’s home, murdered him, and disposed of his body in a river. Despite clear evidence of their guilt, a white male jury acquitted both men of murder. Months later, they unapologietically confessed to the murder in a paid interview, in which they claimed to have killed Till because he had sexually harassed Carolyn Bryant, their wife and sister-in-law. They claimed that Till had “bragged about his white [girlfriend]” and “boasted success with her,” and that his two cousins—also black male teenagers—had dared him to ask Bryant on a date. After this, Till allegedly grabbed Bryant forcefully about her waist and said, “You needn’t be afraid o’ me, Baby. I been with white girls before.” Bryant grabbed a gun, and Till fled the scene. As he left, he “wolf-whistled” her.
This version of events is certainly false. Bryant herself probably recanted significant details of this account decades later, and regardless, it strains belief that Till’s cousins would encourage him to do something so dangerous. It remains unclear whether Till intended to harass Bryant in any sense, or if he whistled for some other reason (perhaps to help him speak through his stutter), and the rest of the story was built around this misunderstanding. Regardless of the truth of the inciting incident, this report speaks to the murderers’ intentions. The murder of Emmett Till was an act of revenge, and by acquitting his killers, the court affirmed that white men are justified in murdering black men (even children) whom they perceive to be threats to their wives and sisters.
Unlike Till’s murder, the killing of George Stinney was lawful. Stinney was just fourteen when he was wrongly convicted of murdering two white girls, aged seven and eleven. Police arrested Stinney on extremely flimsy evidence, and once he was in custody, they starved him until he was forced to confess to the murders. After only ten minutes of deliberation, a white jury sentenced Stinney to die by electrocution. He was denied the right to appeal his case, and Georgia Governor Olin Johnston denied his appeals for clemency. Less than three months after his arrest, George Stinney became the youngest person to be executed in the history of the United States.
Stinney was five foot one and weighed about ninety pounds at the time of his death. One of the police officers who witnessed his coerced confession claimed that he murdered the two girls with a fifteen-inch iron rail spike, which he had apparently wielded with enough force to beat them to death. This accusation is not even plausible on its face, and in the absence of other evidence, George Stinney should not even have been arrested. Even though the medical evidence suggested that it was extremely unlikely that either girl had been raped, the judge allowed the prosecution to discuss the “possibility” that Stinney had raped them, and this was ascribed as his motive for committing the crime. In his decision to reject Stinney’s appeal for clemency, Governor Johnston stated, falsely, that Stinney had admitted to “[killing] the smaller girl to rape the larger one,” then raping the older girl’s corpse repeatedly after her death. This lie has been used to justify his wrongful execution for decades.
Emmett Till and George Stinney were both just fourteen when they died, both black, both innocent of the wrongful acts of which they had been accused. Although Till was the victim in his case, and Stinney the defendant in his, both children stood trial in court, both were found guilty and sentenced to death. I have refrained from calling Stinney’s execution a “murder” because it does not meet the legal definition, but we should consider all of the major players in this case—the judge, the officers, the Governor, the jury—to be as guilty as any murderer. Every aspect of the law which seems to promote justice may easily be exploited to serve malicious and vengeful ends. To quote Foucault, “In the execution of the most ordinary penalty, in the most punctilious respect of legal forms, reign the active forces of revenge.”