A Government of Men Episode 28: White Riot

  • Wednesday, November 21, 2012

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article may include historical materials that could contain offensive language or negative stereotypes. Such materials must be viewed in the context of the relevant time period. The Georgetown Times does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.

By Tom Rubillo

Shortly before Christmas of 1940, violence broke out in Georgetown. An armed and angry mob of about 300 white men had gathered and, according to the December 20, 1940 Georgetown Times, “besieged the Georgetown County jail here Sunday morning in search of an alleged negro assailant of a young white married woman.” The men had heard that the sheriff had a suspect in custody. So they had come to the jail demanding to search it. They wanted to seize the sheriffs suspect, take the accused outside and lynch him.

“The attack occurred about 10:30 Saturday night when the young woman was walking to her home after shopping up town. She had walked to within a little over a block of her home with another couple when they left her and she continued on for the remaining short distance. Before she had been able to walk a block, the negro grabbed her. He dragged her across the street to a vacant lot which was overgrown with weeds and assaulted her, said the Sheriff.

“According to Sheriff Bruorton, the young woman pleaded with the man and told him that she had fifty dollars at home which she would give him if he would let her go.

“Released momentarily, she started running. He pursued her and dragged her down against just as a car drove up and he fled.

“The occupant of the car, a young white man, after unsuccessfuUy pursing the negro, who fled through the vacant lot, carried the young woman to a physician for treatment.”

In response to demands from the mob, the sheriff brought a black prisoner out of the jail to face the crowd. Armed leaders of the mob seized the inmate and took him to the victim’s home. Inside, the victim of the assault was asked if the terrified man in front of her was her assailant. She said “no,” Both the prisoner and the injured woman were taken by the mob back to the jail.

Traumatized, the woman was kept in a truck surrounded by angry white men, where she had to remain as one after another black prisoner was brought outside to face the mob and to face her. Mob leaders made her look at each suspect and answer the question “Is he the one?”. Each time she said “no” the frightened suspect was given back to the sheriff who, in turn, escorted the man back to a cell before another inmate was retrieved and hauled before the mob and the woman who had just survived being raped.

“Only the failure of identity and the arguments of Mayor H. L. Smith, Sheriff Bruorton and City Councilman F. L. Siau kept down the temper of the crowd and prevented violence,” the newspaper reported.

“Officers said that while the crowd was orderly and sober, it was a dangerous situation and a spark of impetuousness could have caused bloodshed.”

When things began to settle down a little, the sheriff went back into the jail. Once inside, he had the man he arrested for the crime whisked out the back door and put, handcuffed, in the trunk of the sheriffs own car. One credible version of events has it that the sheriffs wife then courageously drove the car past the angry mob, dismissing those seeking to stop her with a wave of a hand and a disdainful word or two.

Their angry emotions unsatisfied, the mob took the rape victim home. She was left her there without further regard, aid or comfort by them.

A short time later, there was another knock on the thoroughly exhausted and distraught woman’s front door. When she opened it, she was confronted by yet another suspect’s face. This one was in the company of the sheriff. It was George Thomas.

Identified as her assailant, Thomas was taken to a prison in Columbia, SC for safekeeping. State Highway Patrolman Legare Ansel and Deputy Sheriff D. L. Lawrimore drove him there. Spotted on the way out of town by angry whites, the two law enforcement officers had to take a “devious route” [the newspaper’s expression] to Columbia to elude pursing whites.

“Meanwhile five officers and thirty men of the National Guard unit were hurriedly called to duty with Lieut. Col. L. C. Davis and Major H. P. Ward in first and second command, respectively,” the Times reported.

“As a precautionary measure the armed guardsmen patrolled the jail grounds until late Sunday afternoon when they were removed to the armory and kept on duty until two o’clock Monday morning.

“A machine gun was also set up on the second floor porch of the jail.”

Frustrated by not getting their hands on their intended victim, on Monday night “a mob of whites cruised the streets, beat several innocent negro youths and ordered the rest to their homes.”

Both blacks and whites began to arm themselves. There were rumors that there would be more trouble on Tuesday. “Following a rush by both whites and negroes to buy shotgun shells and to prevent the possibility of any violence, patrols of soldiers and law enforcement officers were mobilized to keep watch over the streets of Georgetown Tuesday night.” Additional soldiers had been dispatched to Georgetown by Governor Burnet R. Maybank in response to an appeal for help from the sheriff.

To help restore order, Mayor Pro Tem M. W. Pyatt issued an order banning further sales of ammunition. Why Mayor Smith did not do so is unknown. He was still in town. Perhaps the segregationist politics of the day played a role. Perhaps not.

All totaled, 30 local guardsmen, 80 members of the state militia, 12 state highway patrolmen, five Governor’s officers, the sheriff, his deputies and ten city policemen patrolled the streets of the city to reestablish order.

Pleas for peace

A few days later, a letter to the editor appeared in the local press. “In view of recent lawlessness in Georgetown with mob violence, many of the women of our city deplore and gravely disapprove of the breakdown of law and order and condemn it.

“We have lived harmoniously for generations with respectable colored families in our town and county and it is our desire that these relations continue, and we also wish to go on record as urging that just punishment be legally meted out to anyone committing a crime” a group of prominent white women wrote. Their plea helped restore order.

In an editorial a short time later, the editor of the Georgetown Times opined that

“The various events which have occurred here since Saturday night have not added anything to the history and glorious traditions of this venerable city …

“The tragic occurrence [of] Saturday night shall pass over. The law and the courts will have their say in the matter.

“Sunday the mob violence at the jail is regrettable but was due to pent-up, heated passions. The Times has only the highest praise for those few men who did everything they could to maintain law and order.

“If the situation had ended Sunday, it would have been much better for all concerned.

“However, the disgraceful and cowardly actions of a mob Monday night in beating several innocent negro youths and in chasing the rest of them off of the streets is nothing else than a downright shame and a disgrace for Georgetown. No self-respecting, decent and law-abiding people would have participated in such.

“Most of the people living in Georgetown, both white and colored, are law-abiding and they want a law-abiding town. And those who are not law-abiding, the city does not need.”

Blaming the victim

The editorial writer’s views were not universally shared. Where some had sought vigilante justice against the assailant, one local woman saw the matter of blame somewhat differently. Her letter to the Times challenged the mothers of Georgetown, asking “Why do they allow their daughters to wear costumes utterly lacking in dignity and modesty?

“All summer long one sees upon our streets and on our beaches little girls, young women in their teens, even married women, wearing shorts and similar garments, which ill become them in public places. Such fashions of undress afford, to some minds; provocation for evil thoughts, and so have their responsibility in leading on to evil deeds. ... [S ]uch practices, if continued, tend to lower the standards of a community when they are permitted. This fact has long given concern and distress to many of us, but any remonstrance has been disregarded. If our women will not remedy this evil custom, then our City Council should....”

With community passions running very high, local lawyers reacted. The local bar association met and voted unanimously to petition to substitute a special term of criminal court at the end of January, 1941 in place of the civil court that was supposed to be held at that time. Bar officers then sent a telegram to Solicitor J. Reuben Long in Conway, SC to that effect. He filed a petition with the Circuit Court Judge and the Chief Justice of South Carolina Supreme Court. The petition was granted. That left the defendant with a little more than 30 days to prepare to go on trial for his life. Rape, in those days, was a capital offense. For a lot of reasons, it no longer carries a death sentence. Instead, rapists and child molesters are tormented and killed by their fellow inmates rather than by the State.

Judicial indiscretion

In 1940, Strom Thurmond was a Circuit Court Judge. He was assigned to hear the case of State v. Thomas. In those days, Thurmond had earned the political and personal reputation as being an ardent segregationist. This racial animus, standing alone, would have made him a poor choice to preside over the case. But that was not the only reason During his 20’s he had impregnated the adolescent daughter of his family’s “negro” house servant. She gave birth nine months later, at age 16, then (and now) the age of consent. No “negro lover,” he kept his paternity secret for a long lifetime. Judges are supposed to either be free of this sort of personal indiscretion or recuse themselves from trials even remotely touching on them.

The pudding and the proof

Because a white lynch mob had marauded the streets of Georgetown, threatening and beating young black males a month earlier, defense counsel asked to move the trial to another county. The emotionally charged atmosphere of Georgetown, he argued, made it impossible for his client to receive a fair trial locally. The attorney told the court that his life had been threatened. He also complained that no Georgetown attorneys would advise or assist him in defending his client who, at that point in the proceedings, had to still be presumed to be innocent by all officers of the court, the judge and local bar included. While not offering help, five local lawyers responded they had not been asked for assistance.

Judge Thurmond denied the motion. He wrote down his reasons in a post-trial memorandum. His views on the subject appear a little later in this recounting.

At trial, the victim testified about the rape and identified Thomas as her assailant. He had come into the store on Front Street where she worked earlier in the day. She recognized him from that earlier encounter when he attacked her around 10:00 that same evening.

The local physician who had examined and treated the woman shortly after the rape confirmed the assault and testified about her physical injuries. DNA and other modem forensic techniques being unknown at the time, there was no analysis of hair, blood, semen or other body fluids to be offered into evidence. Instead, the doctor presented blades of grass and burrs as evidence. The victim had been raped in a vacant lot covered by grass and weeds of various kinds he said.

The defense objected to the admissibility of this offer of proof, pointing out that the doctor had not collected the samples from the victim. He also did not know where it had come from, other than the prosecution had given it to him.

Since the doctor did not collect the samples and did not know where the proffered biota had come from, defense counsel argued, the doctor was not legally competent to testify about the greenery. All that debris, therefore, should be excluded from evidence.

Thurmond exercised his judicial discretion to admit the weeds and seeds into evidence against Thomas.

Defense, Rebuttal and Reply

Thomas, his wife, son, sister-in-law and several neighbors testified that the defendant had come home about 7:15 Saturday evening “in an intoxicated condition.” He had then eaten dinner and then fell asleep on the kitchen table. At about 10:45 in the evening - some 15 minutes after the rape - they said, he got up from the table and went to bed. He had remained asleep in bed until 7:30 Sunday morning. Other witnesses testified as to Thomas’s whereabouts earlier on Saturday and on Sunday morning.

On rebuttal, J. Lee Wilson, the owner of Wilson’s Grocery on Front Street, was called to the witness stand by the prosecution. He testified that Thomas had come into the grocery store around 8:00 p.m. Saturday evening asking for a pack of cigarettes on credit. Wilson refused the request, but then gave Thomas one smoke as a courtesy. This testimony placed Thomas on the streets of the city after he and his family said he fell asleep drunk at the kitchen table.

The State next offered testimony from Patrolman Legare Ansel. He swore that the burrs and grass were retrieved from Thomas’s underwear at the Marion County jail during a break on the trip to Columbia following Thomas’s arrest. Ansel said he searched Thomas during that pause in that respite. The defense again objected, complaining that this new evidence by the State came too late in the trial, after the State had closed its “case in chief’ and unfairly sandbagged the defense with new (and perhaps fabricated?) evidence.

Judge Thurmond again exercised his judicial discretion against the black defendant and allowed the prosecution to fill the gap in evidence it had left behind when it rested. The record is silent on the question of whether the debris matched the vegetation at the crime scene.

On reply Thomas denied that this search had ever occurred.

Law and Disorder

Recounting the Thomas trial, the local press reported that

“Throughout the week, a detail of thirty-five highway patrolmen, under the command of Lieutenant Kinsey, were on duty at the court house, the jail and on the streets. All traffic was barred from passing by the court house while court was in session.

“Tuesday night, Judge Thurmond ordered the jury be kept in a body and locked up over night.

“When court convened Wednesday morning, the jury and the defendant were taken to the scene of the crime upon the request of the defense counsel.

After deliberating for about an hour, the white jury returned a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. That left Thurmond free to impose the penalty of death by electrocution. He did just that. Originally set for February 28, 1941, the execution was stayed pending appeal.

Denying a post-trial motion for a new trial based on hostile community sentiment (which, in practical effect, was the same as the pretrial motion to move the trial elsewhere), Thurmond later wrote

“[T]here was not discernible in or about the court room the slightest display of public sentiment against the defendant or his attorney; ... the trial itself was conducted in a quiet and orderly way, and ... there were only such officers seen in and around the court house as were actually necessary to carry on the normal business of the court.” He added that “there appeared to be little public interest in this case, as only a few people were in attendance upon the trial” to his post-trial memorandum to the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The article in the newspaper describing the same events reported that “[t]hroughout the trial the court room was packed with an orderly audience of spectators.”

In an yet another written order — this one addressing disputes about the content of the trial record — Thurmond wrote:

“The jurors were placed on their voir dire, and only three of the qualified jurors, out of the entire venire, one of which sat on the case, had ever heard of the case before, which fact further convinced the court that public feeling in Georgetown County was not unduly excited by the crime committed.”

Separate but equal protection of the law

A number of years earlier, the South Carolina Supreme Court had granted a new trial in a murder case from Fairfield County because the trial judge had denied a motion for a change of venue. In that case, several days of intense excitement had followed the homicide. Local bands of armed men swarmed around the county looking for the defendant. The victim was a popular person from a large and influential family. Local attorneys had refused to represent the defendant. Based on the facts, the high court concluded that it was impossible for the defendant to get a fair trial.

“The situation in the Davis case is in a great many respects far different from the situation in the case at bar — so different, as already pointed out, that it is not controlling” the court concluded. Thomas’s appeal was denied. He later died in the electric chair.

A year after the Thomas case was tried, a young white man was tried and found guilty of raping a 13 year old white girl. On November 14, 1940 (about a month before the rape in the Thomas case), four young white boys took the adolescent girl on a boat ride. They tied up at a dock at the foot of Meeting Street in Georgetown and the girl was raped. She later committed suicide. Scolded severely for their actions, three were released and the rapist received a lenient sentence.

Tom Rubillo used to practice law, but is now retired. He has held public office, taught government, ethics and law at area colleges and has published several books.

 The episodes written in connection with this project will be, at its conclusion, available in one volume, or at least that is his best laid plan.

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