On this day in 1944, 14 year old George Stinney, Jr. was executed by electric chair in South Carolina for allegedly killing two young white girls. He was the youngest person to be executed in the United States. 70 years later he was exonerated of the crime.
In a courtroom packed with around 1000 people, where black people were prohibited, George was convicted by an all white jury in less than 10 minutes in a trial that lasted a mere two and a half hours. He had no attorney representation prior to the trial, a practice which was legal at the time. There was no evidence provided against him except the testimony of three white police officers, and his defense attorney called no witnesses, did no cross-examinations, and refused to appeal the conviction. George’s parents were not permitted to see him prior to trial, and were only allowed one visit before execution. They were forced to go into hiding due to mass lynching of black and indigenous peoples at the time.
George’s execution was nothing less than a barbaric feat of gruesome cruelty. The 5 foot, 1 inch tall, 90 lb boy had to have a bible placed under him because he did not fit the electric chair. He sobbed as he was strapped into the chair and looked toward his father who was allowed to be there. Because of his size, the adult face mask did not fit and fell off during the execution revealing the horror to all those present. His torturous execution lasted an agonizing 8 minutes.
George Stinney, Jr. was executed at time of Jim Crow segregation, where thousands of black, brown and indigenous people were being lynched. Yet it would be far too easy to relegate this tragedy to society’s sins of the past. It has been seventy-six years since this particular act of barbarity and we are still seeing the ripples of systemic racism persist. Amidst unprecedented protests against systemic, racist police brutality, scores of non-violent people have been injured or killed by the police or others. Thousands have been tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, pepper sprayed, and beaten. At least five black men have been found hanged outside public buildings across the country. All have been ruled suicides almost immediately by authorities, despite glaring discrepancies. And a sitting president continues to stoke the fears of racist animus among his feckless fans. All of this speaks to this unfinished chapter of history that the powerful ignore to the detriment of justice for everyone else. And if we allow cynical misanthropy, repression, and self interest continue to cast its shadow over our world, all to preserve a status quo rooted in inequality, we will have only ourselves to blame for the fire next time.
Kenn Orphan June 2020
Photo is of George Stinney, Jr.