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Willie Earle

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

Willie Earle is shown in a police mug shot. Accused of robbing and killing a white taxi driver, he was lynched by a group of whites in 1947.

On February 17, 1947, Willie Earle, a twenty-four-year-old African-American man, was being held in the Pickens County Jail in South Carolina, on charges of assaulting a white taxicab driver. ‪•‬ A mob of white men, mostly taxi cab drivers, seized Mr. Earle from the jail, took him to a deserted country road near Greenville, brutally beat him with guns and knives, and then shot him to death. ‪•‬ When arrested, twenty-six of the thirty-one defendants gave full statements admitting participation in Mr. Earle’s death. ‪•‬ A trial began, and at its start, Judge J. Robert Martin warned he would “not allow racial issues to be injected in this case.” ‪•‬ During the ten-day trial, the defendants chewed gum and chuckled each time the victim was mentioned. ‪•‬ The defense did not present any witnesses or evidence to rebut the confessions and instead blamed “northern interference” for bringing the case to trial at all. ‪•‬ At one point, the defense attorney likened Mr. Earle to a “mad dog” that deserved to be killed, and the mostly white spectators laughed in support. ‪•‬ Despite the undisputed confession, the all-white jury acquitted the defendants of all charges on May 21, 1947, and the judge ordered them released. ‪•‬ Some Greenville leaders cited the trial as progress in Southern race relations: “This was the first time that South Carolina has brought mass murder charges against alleged lynchers. This jury acquitted them. If there should be another case, perhaps we may get a mistrial with a hung jury. Eventually, the south may return convictions.” ‪•‬ In 1948, when Mr. Earle’s mother attempted to collect under a state law ordering counties to pay two thousand dollars to the family of a lynching victim, her claim was denied because, due to the acquittals, there was no proof of her son being lynched. ‪•‬ In 2010, a historical marker was erected near the site of Willie Earle’s murder.