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‘Why Would They Kill Me for Something I Didn’t Do?’

It was the question a 14-year-old innocent black teen asked before being executed in 1944’s Jim Crow South. And it’s a question the Square One Project — which recently held its first roundtable in North Carolina — continues to grapple with.

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George Stinney

Editor's note: Arnold Ventures' Criminal Justice Manager Sebastian Johnson wrote this reflection after observing the first roundtable discussion of the Square One Project on the Future of Justice Policy, “Examining the History of Racial and Economic Inequality: Implications for Justice Policy and Practice,” in Durham, North Carolina.

Before George Stinney became the youngest American to be executed in the past century, at 14 years old; before he was Inmate No. 260, his baleful countenance captured in a monochrome mugshot; before he was hauled away by white men in black cars, George Stinney was the beloved older brother of Amie Ruffner.

George and Amie lived with their siblings and parents in a three-room house owned by the lumber company that dominated Alcolu, South Carolina. Alcolu was like countless segregated communities across the Jim Crow South, a place where white and black laborers worked side by side in the saw mill but retreated to separate neighborhoods and churches at day’s end, separated by a set of railroad tracks.

On March 25, 1944, the bodies of two white girls who’d gone missing the day before were found in a watery ditch on the property of George Burke Sr., a prominent manager at the saw mill where most of the men in Alcolu earned their living. It was Burke’s search party that discovered the corpses, bludgeoned to death and pinned beneath a bicycle the girls were seen riding. George and Amie were among the last people to see the girls alive.

That afternoon, George Stinney was led from his home in handcuffs as Amie cowered in the family’s chicken coop, terrified. “George,” she screamed after him, “are you leaving me?” They were the last words she would say to her brother. As news spread of his arrest, George’s father was fired from his job at the saw mill. His family was forced to flee town ahead of a lynch mob.

George Burke Sr. served as foreman of the coroner’s inquest jury and was a member of the special grand jury convened to hear Stinney’s case despite also being a named witness. Stinney’s family was too afraid to attend the trial, so George faced his accusers alone. The local authorities pointed to Stinney’s confession, likely coerced; Amie, who could have provided her brother with an alibi, was not called to testify. At the end of a three-hour trial, a jury of white men took just 10 minutes to find Stinney guilty. He was sentenced to the electric chair. His court-appointed lawyer didn’t bother with an appeal.

On June 16, 1944, George Stinney, standing 5-foot-1 and weighing a scant 95 pounds, was strapped into a chair designed for adults. Contemporary news clippings claim the executioners sat him on books so he would reach the headpiece. Until the end, Stinney was bewildered. “Why,” he asked his cellmate, “would they kill me for something I didn't do?”

Miller Shealy, a professor at the Charleston (S.C.) School of Law, announces in August 2016 that attorneys plan to file a civil rights lawsuit stemming from the 1944 execution of George Stinney. (The Associated Press)

I have been haunted by George’s question in the time since I learned of his case. It was certainly at the front of my mind when I read recently about the white woman in Georgia who called the police on a black man babysitting two white children because she “just had a funny feeling.” Viral incidents of profiling and harassment abound — countless black lives inconvenienced, persecuted, and curtailed for things they did not do. What is it that makes so many Americans look at their black fellow citizens and see criminals?

The Square One Project, a collaboration of students, academics, practitioners, advocates, and community leaders, was established to grapple with George’s question and many others in an effort to reimagine justice in the United States. Square One will take on fundamental issues of poverty and racial inequality, violence and safety, criminalization and punishment. The project asks participants and members of the public to consider how justice policy would be different if we started over from “square one.”

But no reimagining of our common future would be complete without a reexamination of our past. The first Square One Roundtable took place at North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, to consider how the original sins of slavery, white supremacy, and settler colonialism continue to manifest in our criminal justice system today. This public forum brought together stakeholders with a well of varied expertise, drawing on deep personal and community experience to consider discussion papers authored by leading researchers.

Welcoming participants to NCCU, interim Law School Dean Elaine O’Neal addressed the weight of history directly and called for a reckoning with the ongoing ways in which “the descendants of slaves are still very much enslaved.” The setting of the meeting in Durham also evoked historical truths. It was in the colony of Carolina that slave patrols, a precursor to our modern-day law enforcement, were first established in 1704 — 240 years before George Stinney was executed. Robert Brown notes that in many Southern settlements, “enslaved and freed Blacks outnumbered Whites. Threats to the institution of slavery (i.e., revolts, escapes) and maintaining the supremacy of Whites over Blacks were significant regional concerns.” Carolina, established on land occupied by indigenous peoples, was also a frontier space. Law enforcement was of paramount concern for white settlers, who sought “to regulate spaces that they did not own or fully control.”

Then and now, bondage was business, incentivized by economic concerns and a desire for profit. Daryl Atkinson connected our history of racialized social control and oppression to the present, noting that “when you look at the leading incarcerators on the planet today, they’re in the South.” The old masters sought wealth through plantation agriculture and trade in human chattel; today, mass incarceration is a $182 billion industry built on the backs of poor black and brown communities.

Then and now, the imperatives of global capital required the logic of white supremacy. In her seminal work “Slavery Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” historian Barbara Fields notes that the transition from a reliance on temporary white indentured servitude to permanent black slavery led to the ideological evolution of racism. The establishment of the United States as a free society necessitated a countervailing justification of unfreedom: “When self-evident laws of nature guarantee freedom, only equally self-evident laws of equally self-evident nature can account for its denial.”

Then and now, questions of criminal justice and public safety were inextricably bound up in ideas of who deserved citizenship and inclusion, and whose bodies would lie outside the protection and status bestowed by the law. As Leah Wright Rigueur noted, black Americans have “existed either at the margins of citizenship…or have been excluded entirely,” facilitating their alienation from the fruits of their labor and the exercise of the vote. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery after the Civil War includes an infamous carve-out for incarcerated individuals, enabling a century and a half of forced labor in our prisons — from chain gangs and convict leasing to the exploitative work for little or no pay prevalent in institutions today.

Kerry Haynie expanded on the connection between citizenship and exclusion, outlining how “politicians and policymakers, across multiple generations, have either used or relied on the law and the criminal justice system as tools in furtherance” of white supremacy. North Carolina’s law that disenfranchises people with criminal convictions was passed in 1901, following an “intimidation campaign in the state in 1898 [where] armed men rode through African-American communities to discourage voting.” Felon disenfranchisement remains a vector of voter suppression today. For example, 1 in 4 black Floridians had their right to vote restored by constitutional amendment in the 2018 election — a contest where three statewide races had margins low enough to trigger automatic recounts.

And yet, if Durham is an appropriate site for a Square One conversation because it evokes an ugly history, the city also embodies the hopeful undercurrents of progress, reflecting the duality of the American experience. The city was home to a thriving black business district in the early part of the 20th century know as Black Wall Street, a point of pride for black Durhamites. There is also a century-long tradition of black political organizing and leadership in Durham, owing particularly to the sustained effort and organizing talent of black women.

Today, in Durham, a reform-minded district attorney and mother of three black children will soon take office. Despite seeing the same uptick in violent crime that other cities have experienced in recent years, criminal justice reforms continue to have support among city residents. Durham implemented a policy requiring written consent for vehicle searches in 2014, and the district court adopted a Misdemeanor Diversion Program for young adults charged with a first-time, nonviolent offense. Citizen activists in places across the country, including Durham, are pioneering community-led approaches to addressing intractable public safety challenges, including the promising examples documented by Leah Salaka and Nancy La Vigne.

Still, there is work to be done. In Durham, dozens of protesters are demanding answers after the death of a black NCCU student at the hands of a campus security guard who allegedly shot him in self-defense. And longtime black residents fear progressive values and selective reforms will not save their homes and neighborhoods from gentrification.

The whole of North Carolina, too, represents this duality. It can be seen in the legacy of progressive politics bequeathed by the Fusionists, and in the pitchfork terrorism of Ben Tillman. It threads through the Rev. William Barber’s call for a national moral revival, and the quiet efforts of the state legislature to disenfranchise black voters with “surgical precision.” It is there in the pitched battle between what George Packer calls “the default force in American life, organized money,” and people organizing for justice.

Truth-telling and reconciliation are prerequisites for justice, critical components of community building, connecting hearts as a path to changing minds. Dr. Susan Glisson spoke of her contributions in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were notoriously murdered in 1964. In 2005, a coalition of community members issued a call for justice in the case, leading to the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen and ending an agonizing chapter.

In “My Dungeon Shook,” James Baldwin’s famous 1963 letter to his nephew and namesake, Baldwin wrote that white people are “still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” Indeed, all Americans persist in darkness about our shared history, a painful record casting shadows and preventing us from seeing ourselves clearly today. But, piece by piece, the truth comes to light, its acknowledgement offering another opportunity to imagine our country anew—to make its promise whole.

Today in Alcolu, thanks to the efforts of local residents, a memorial gravestone to honor George Stinney sits alongside Sumter Highway. Its inscription reads: “George Stinney, Jr. October 21, 1929 – June 16, 1944. Wrongfully convicted, illegally executed by South Carolina. Conviction vacated by court order dated December 16, 2014.” It stands as a commemoration of a recent and wrenching past; as a prescient warning for our troubled present; as an accounting of our collective debt, to ensure that future generations of black boys will not be asked to pay with their lives.

The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.
African-American Spiritual