My parents spared no expense to instill the putrid reality of American racism into my mind. I studied W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey extensively while I was memorizing my multiplication tables. The name Garrett Morgan floated around my house so commonly that I was shocked none of my white friends knew a Black man invented the traffic light. So when I tell you that I never knew about George Stinney, I want you to understand how shocking the revelation was for me.
On this day, in 1944, George Stinney became the youngest American executed in the 20th century at the tender age of 14. Falsely accused of murdering two white girls, Stinney’s death is one of the most horrific miscarriages of justice in the history of America’s legal system.
In March 1944, deep in the Jim Crow South, police came for 14-year-old George Stinney Jr. His parents weren’t at home. His little sister was hiding in the family’s chicken coop behind the house in Alcolu, a segregated mill town in South Carolina, while officers handcuffed George and his older brother, Johnnie, and took them away.
Two young white girls had been found brutally murdered, beaten over the head with a railroad spike and dumped in a water-logged ditch. He and his little sister, who were black, were said to be last ones to see them alive. Authorities later released the older Stinney – and directed their attention toward George.
On June 16, 1944, he was executed, becoming the youngest person in modern times to be put to death. On Wednesday, 70 years later, he was exonerated.
He was questioned in a small room, alone – without his parents, without an attorney. (Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case guaranteeing the right to counsel, wouldn’t be decided until 1963.) Police claimed the boy confessed to killing Betty June Binnicker, 11, and Mary Emma Thames, 8, admitting he wanted to have sex with Betty. They rushed him to trial.
After a two-hour trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation, Stinney was convicted of murder on April 24 and sentenced to die by electrocution, according to a book by Mark R. Jones. At the time, 14 was the age of criminal responsibility. His lawyer, a local political figure, chose not to appeal.
At first, I felt a little disappointed in myself for not hearing about Stinney sooner. I mean, my parents told me about Emmett Till. Why did they guard my mind against information about Stinney? Now that I’m slightly older, I can understand how grim a prospect it must be to talk to your son about the untimely and wholly avoidable death of another Black boy only slightly older than him. Moreover, I can imagine how frightening it must be to wonder if a similar fate awaits him outside your home’s walls.