We cannot ignore history, racism, or injustices; we might repeat the wrongs.
George Stinney, Jr. Arrest
In 1944 long before Civil Rights, racism and segregation were a part of life, especially for the South. Blacks had no rights, poverty was amuck, and decent jobs or housing was lacking for African Americans. The whites believed they were superior as corrupt and racist politicians held them back.
George Stinney, Jr. was born on October 21, 1929, in Alcolu, South Carolina, to George Stinney, Sr., and Aime. He had two brothers and two sisters. The whole family lived in a three-room company house as George Sr. worked for the lumber company.
Alcolu, South Carolina, was a small segregated town separated by a set of railroad tracks, one side for whites and the other side for blacks.
On March 23, 1944, the bodies of two young white girls were found after they hadn't returned the night before. The girls had been riding their bicycles earlier that day and stopped to talk with George and his brother John Stinney to ask where they could find maypole flowers. The Stinney brothers said they didn't know, so the girls kept riding. Unfortunately, the girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 7, were never seen alive again.
Deputy H.S. Newman, having been informed of the Stinney brothers talking to the girls, arrested the boys and took them to the police station. John was released, but George was interrogated without counsel or his parents. Deputy Newman made a hand-written statement:
"I arrested a boy named George Stinney who stated he knew where to find a piece of iron thought to be the weapon. He confessed to the murders of the girls." George was scared and alone. He was not allowed to see anyone, including his parents. Later, George told a fellow inmate the deputy offered him food if he would confess.
The Sham Trial of George Stinney
A jam-packed courtroom of hundreds sat eagerly waiting for the prosecution to present their case. An all-white jury was seated, but no blacks were in the courtroom or on the jury. The court-appointed attorney for defendant Charles Stinney was Charles Plowden. Plowden was up for re-election and knew he had to play to his voters. Unfortunately, Plowden was highly remiss in his oath of law. He never asked for a change of venue, cross-examined the arresting officers, or called any witnesses himself. As a result, there was no evidence to prove George's guilt except for a witness saying the Stinney boys talked to the girls.
The trial lasted less than three hours and even more astounding; the jury returned a verdict in ten minutes! The verdict was guilty. Judge Phillip Stall sentenced Stinney to death by electrocution. No appeal would be filed, and George was led away in chains to prison to await execution. This was the only time his parents were allowed to see him. Seems this was a rush to judgment.
There was only circumstantial evidence, no physical evidence. No copies of his confession have ever been found. Yet young George was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.
Thousands of letters, including one from NAACP, were sent to Governor Olin Johnston begging for clemency for George because of his age. Governor Johnston refused all requests. Johnston became a U.S. Senator who also voted against Civil Rights.
The Execution of George Stinney
On June 16, 1944, George Stinney was led into the chamber to the adult electric chair. George was 5'1" and all weighing only 95 pounds. He was simply too small to fit in the electric chair, so his bible acted as a cushion. When the leather mask was put on his face, he began weeping. Strapped down, face hidden, 2400 volts of electricity flowed through his little body. The mask slipped off his face showing the tears and his head burning.
What a tragic ending for the loss of the two young girls and the electrocution of George Stinney without any true evidence.
Another Possible Suspect
Rumors circulated of another suspect, that of George Burkem Jr., son of a wealthy resident of Alcolu. Burke Jr. was known as a bully and was always bailed out of trouble with his father. Rumors that he had given the girls a ride in his truck and the bodies were found on property owned by his father. The rumors persisted when Burke Jr. was said to have a deathbed confession when he died of kidney problems in 1947. This was never confirmed, but certainly possible.
Efforts To Clear George Stinney
In 2004, a historian, George Frierson, began researching the story of George Stinney and his belief in a wrongful execution. Before long, his work caught the attention of attorneys Steve Mckensie and Matt Burgess. Others joined in the quest, such as Ray Brown and James Moon. Countless hours of research and interviews resulted in the filing of a motion for a new trial on October 15, 2013.
The case was before Judge Carmen Mullen, a circuit court judge. Her ruling on December 16, 2014, vacated George Stinney's conviction. She went on to say:
"the fundamental, Constitutional violations of the case have been ignored. No one here can justify a 14-year-old being charged, tried, convicted, and executed in 80 days."
Sonya Eaddy Williamson
Over the years, Sonya remembers words her grandfather said to her about the tragic story of George Stiney. Her grandfather was at the courthouse when George Stinney entered the courtroom in shackles. Her grandfather said, "I know that colored boy didn't do it." It haunted her for years, wondering why no one did anything. She began talking with her mother and other family members but hit a brick wall. Family members told her, 'forget it,' and it's an old story.
Sonya returned to Alcolu and began knocking on doors, especially those of the black folks. She eventually tracked down the son of Burke, Jr., Wilbur, and he vaguely remembered the time but did say his father did give the girls a ride. However, later he denied he said that.
The memorial stone is located on Sumter Hwy, Alcolu, S.C., and can be seen on U.S. 521.
Books and Movies
A book, Carolina Skeletons 1988, by David Stout, details the incredible story of the wrongful death sentence of George Stinney. Stout won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
The 1996 movie, The Green Mile by Stephen King was loosely based on George Stinney.
The movie 83 Days can be seen on Netflix.