Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism

Who Lynched Willie Earle?: Preaching to Confront Racism

by Will Willimon


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Pastors and leaders long to speak an effective biblical word into the contemporary social crisis of racial violence and black pain. They need a no-nonsense strategy rooted in actual ecclesial life, illuminated in this fine book by a trustworthy guide, Will Willimon, who uses the true story of pastor Hawley Lynn’s March of 1947 sermon, “Who Lynched Willie Earle?” as an opportunity to respond to the last lynching in Greenville, South Carolina and its implications for a more faithful proclamation of the Gospel today.

By hearing black pain, naming white complicity, critiquing American exceptionalism/civil religion, inviting/challenging the church to respond, and attending to the voices of African American pastors and leaders, this book helps pastors of white, mainline Protestant churches preach effectively in situations of racial violence and dis-ease.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501832512
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 12/06/2016
Pages: 154
Sales rank: 504,279
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Feeling most at home behind a pulpit, Will Willimon’s deepest calling is to be a preacher and truth-teller of Jesus Christ. He is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke University Divinity School and retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church, after serving for 20 years as faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Will Willimon has published many books, including his preaching subscription service on MinistryMatters.com, Pulpit Resource, and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, both published by Abingdon Press.

Read an Excerpt

Who Lynched Willie Earle?

Preaching to Confront Racism

By Will Willimon

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5018-3252-9



Shocking Mob Action

The people of Greenville ... justly shocked over the exhibition of mob violence in which a negro prisoner was taken from the Pickens jail and lynched.

This is the first instance of such mob action in Greenville ... in many a year; ... despite the justified anger and resentment over the attack upon a Greenville cab driver, the lynching itself cannot be condoned ... it had not been definitely proved that this negro was the [perpetrator].... It is gratifying ... that ... the state constabulary at the direction of Governor Thurmond have promptly begun vigorous efforts to bring the authors of this deed to justice.

–Greenville News, February 17, 1947

Confession: Jessie Lee Sammons

"I ain't got nothin' to hide. Some of 'em might. Not me. I'll tell you the gospel truth. The county just got saved a bunch of money, the way most folks see it.

"At that time I stayed at 112 West Broad Street with Martha and the kids. Worked for American Cab ever since I left school. 'Cept Greenville has changed, specially now the war's over. They come back and think that they don't have to act right. Colored and white. We done had one robbery of a cab after another. Didn't have that before the war. Now we got people beatin' up drivers and nobody to do nothin' about it. Bad as up North.

"Blue Bird Taxi was right behind the courthouse in Greenville where they had the trial. That's where things started that night and spread to the other companies. Next to the courthouse. One block from the sheriff's office. The law could see everthing right from their windows if them had taken the trouble to look.

"Anyway, Monday morning, between two and three, I come out of the Southern Café over at the depot on West Washington. I seen Griggs, Marvin Fleming, and Johnny Willimon walking over toward the café from where they park their cabs. Hendrix Rector said, 'Are you going with us over to get the Negro at Pickens?' I told him I hadn't thought much about it.

"'Well, we're going,' he said. 'You yeller?' They was probably already drinking. All of 'em was to meet at four, out at the Saluda River bridge, halfway between Greenville and Easley. We was to meet at that tourist camp that used to be just acrost the bridge.

"So I drove myself to American Cab, checked my sheets with Mr. Norris and Mr. O. C. Berry. I went outside and I seen two Yellow Cabs pull up. One driven by Rector, the other by Marvin Fleming. They had gone and got whiskey at the Poinsett and were liquored up good, I guessed. They knew I'm a Baptist. I don't need to get drunk to do right.

"There was one Blue Bird cab. Rector come out of the office and showed what I guess was about ten, maybe fifteen drivers what cabs to get into. I sat on the back seat beside Walt Crawford and Ernest Stokes. Up in the front seat with Rector was Johnny and Perry Murrell. I know you been told that taxi boys is the way to get liquor or whores in Greenville. There's truth in some of that. But that night we were all doing right, standing up for ourselves. We knew the law wouldn't. You been told this was done by a gang of lint heads. That's a lie. Just about ever one come from Greenville City. Most was veterans, too. There's a whole bunch of lies told at the trial by the high-ups like Ashmore and them that lives on Crescent Avenue.

"We drove out Bramlett Road. Turned right onto Parker Road and then right on to the first street to the right. Reedy Street. Rector got out and went into this white house to get some shotgun shells. He come back out and we come back the way we come. We took country roads till we come out on the Easley Highway, up near Noah Smith's junkyard. Then we went down to the old tourist camp just acrost the Saluda River Bridge. By the time we got there, about four, I guess there was maybe five cars. All was cabs 'cept for one '42 Ford, four-door, black, nickle-plated spotlight on the driver's side. I figured it was that Marchant boy's car.

"Clardy took over, like he was in charge. Told everbody stay together and follow him. He said he was from Pickens and knew the jailer and the sheriff and that they wouldn't give no trouble because of him. Some of them passed a fifth around in Rector's cab.

"We headed off toward Pickens. Red Fleming was following the lead cab and we were right behind. Damned if we didn't have a flat tire up acrost from the stockade outside Pickens. So we left the cab and Murrell, Rector, and me got in the cab of Red Fleming. Fleming was talkin' loud, 'I'm going to drag him up the street behind this cab.' He's all mouth.

"We got to Pickens somewhere about five. Fleming parked just behind the lead cab on the right side of the jail. That Ford, it pulled up in front of the jail and turned its spotlight on the front door. Half the cabs parked on the street in front of the jail and about half to the side. The leader and one man with a shotgun went to the door first. Looked like a movie.

"He called the jailer 'Ed.' 'We come to get the Negro who killed Mr. Brown.' The jailer said, 'I guess you boys know what you're doing, don't you?' And somebody said, 'I guess we do or we wouldn't be here.' Everybody was polite and respectful. Joy piped up, 'The Negro cut one of our mates and we have come for him.' Clardy said, 'We want to get him and get him quick.'

"The one with the shotgun and a couple more went in. Rector, Murrell, Willimon, and me come after them. The jailer, old Gilstrap, had a wife, two girls, and a boy sleeping upstairs. Gilstrap didn't have no gun. He made you laugh, standin' there in an old-fashion nightshirt, barefooted. Only one lightbulb in the hall. Somebody said, 'Ed (don't know how he knowed his name), we ain't goin' to hurt nobody. All we want is that Negro. Tell us where he is so we can be on our way.' Gilstrap said, 'I hope you know what you are doing,' and somebody shouted, 'Hell, yeah,' and Gilstrap said, 'No cussing, my wife and kids is upstairs.' He went to get the keys to the colored section. I heard 'em opening and shutting doors. Somebody told me that the Negro was lying down on a bunk covered with dirty sheets. There was another one with him but Gilstrap said he had nothing to do with it and he was left alone.

"I went to the telephone on the hall table and started to pick it up. It was either Griggs or Rector come over and grabbed my arm. 'What the hell are you doing with that phone?'

"'I'm fixin' it so nobody can call out on this!' I told him. 'You think of that?'

"Hubert Carter come down the steps and into the hall holding the Negro. He was smaller than I figured. They said Tom Brown was stabbed by a big, black Negro. He was shuffling. They pushed him toward the door. He looked guilty all right.

"They got the Negro into the rear seat of the lead car. You could tell he knowed what he had done and what was going to be done to him. He smelled bad, was shakin' hard, breathin' heavy. Paul Griggs set in my lap. Two men set beside the driver. The man in the center had the gun.

"We drove out the Easley Highway and turned left. The man up in the front seat said soft, businesslike, 'I guess you know what we got you for?' The Negro said, 'I guess I do know, for stabbing and cutting Mr. Brown.' Before we could get past Easley that Negro said he wasn't the only one in it. He didn't say no name.

"Ask any of 'em. At first he lied. Then he said he did it. Somebody said, 'That's all we need.' And 'Boy, you better set things right with the man upstairs.'

"Somebody said, 'Let's do it,' but Clardy said, 'Not in my cab! That's where I make my living!'

"Everybody, including the Negro, knew what we was about. Nobody said nothin' mean.

"We drove on up to Bramlett Road, up by the slaughter pen. Then I saw them pull the Negro out of the car by his belt. I was the last one to get out. I walked up the road past where they was all standing over him. Red talked nice to him, reminding him that he 'didn't have long to live' and trying to tell him not 'to die with a lie in his heart.' But he was hardheaded, he was. Somebody shouted that we ought to carry him over to the hospital so Tom Brown could say he's the one who did it. The Saturday night dispatcher said that Tom was picking up two fares, not one, corner of Markley and Calhoun. That's when the Negro tried to get time by begging that they take him to some house or other where he would show us the one who did it.

"I saw Rector with a knife, a small pocketknife, I'd say. Griggs hit him onest or twice in the face while some of the others held him. Rector took the butt of Clardy's shotgun and beat him into the ground. Fleming started in on him. The cutting was done by Rector and maybe Griggs and Stokes. (Rector was in trouble with the law onest for knifing a man so he knowed what he was doing.) 'Before you kill him,' he says, 'I wants to put the same cuts on 'im that he put on Tom Brown.' I could hear clothes tearing.

"Red Fleming's got tattooed to his fingers, 'LOVETOHATE.'

"I heard the Negro cry, 'Lawdy mercy, y'all done killed me.'

"Clardy yelled to Rector, 'If you're going to kill him with the gun, kill him. Don't get blood all over it.' Them two never got along. Somebody heard the Negro whisper, 'I'm dying now.' That's when Herd broke in and said, 'Let's get it over with.' I could see the Negro trying to raise himself up by his elbow. Herd shot, then asked for another shell to finish the job.

"I walked back to the car and all of them come on to the cars. Somebody was laughing at something but most of them didn't say nothin' I could hear. Rector got in the same car with me. He was holding a piece of wood off his shotgun. He said, 'That son of a bitch broke my gun.'

"They let me out at the Southern Depot. I went back into the Southern Café, got a cup of coffee. The Greek behind the counter, called George, said, 'Did you get him?' "'I don't know what you're talking about' was all I said. I put down fifteen cent for the coffee and left.

"By that time the sun had come up. I went over to the corner of Coffee and North Main. Johnny Willimon got in my cab and said, 'I done got blood on my knife and on my Sunday-go-to-church pants, damn it.'

"Woodrow Wilson Clardy had to wash blood from out of his car at Toohey's behind the Poinsett Hotel."

Testimony: Tessie Earle

"They stole him out of jail! Willie never did nobody harm. They stole him out of jail. He was a good boy because he is the oldest. He went off to war. They took him, even though he was sick with the epilepsy. He had spells. First one was when he was little. Lasted close to an hour. I had to run get a spoon and put it in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue.

"Willie and his brothers would catch fish and take them to the Townsends' butcher shop in Liberty to make a little money.

"He had to quit school when he was about ten in order to work on the farm where we stayed. He never liked farm work. So he laid asphalt. Worked for Duke Power. He couldn't drive because of his spells so he had to take what work he could get. His brother got him a job up in Norfolk with Royal Crown. Over in Greenville he worked garbage pickup. Was good with bicycles, even sold Grit door-to-door in Liberty.

"Yes, he was picked up a couple of times by police, but he was never charged with nothing. He did a little time on the chain gang, but I don't know what for. I think what him and his buddies was doing on that Sunday evening — they was at the bootlegger's house over in Beverly, the one they call Widow Cox.

"When he was little, we stayed over near the Pickens-Anderson county line, renting from the Allgoods, before my husband died. 1939. Willie and the Jackson boys used to go frog giggin' and the Jackson boys told me they remembered Willie making them laugh by putting a frog on his head!

"Willie was put in a cell over in Pickens in the colored section with Raymond Louis Robinson. They had brought Raymond over from the county stockade on the edge of Pickens. You heard, haven't you, that Raymond offered to identify to the lawmen some of them who came over and got Willie? But nobody took Raymond up on it. And when he got sent back to the stockade, those guards beat him terrible. You could hear prisoners screaming from all the way out at the road when the guards took to beating them, which they did a lot.

"After I was left a widow with six children, I rented on Palmetto Street, close in to Liberty. That night we had made a fire because it was cold. And the radio was playing when Willie knocked on the door.

"He said, 'I got here on the bus.' That's what he said. He got off the bus from Greenville. I was glad to see him since it had been some days since he was over at Liberty. He had just four dollars to his name, so where would he get twelve dollars for a taxicab? He slept on my sofa right in my house. That night he told Mary that he was sorry that he didn't have money to buy her a present for her eighth birthday. He had been so sick and not able to work regular.

"I cooked at the Liberty Café. Fifteen dollars a week. Three years. That Sunday, I didn't have to cook 'cause we only had dinner after church and no breakfast so I could stay and visit with Willie until eleven o'clock. I guess he had five, maybe six of his buddies over to visit with him since he was in town. We listened to songs on the gospel program. Oberlene was able to watch Mary, Wesley, and Daisy so I told 'em I had to go and left Willie and his friends at the house.

"Sometime that afternoon, Willie and them went over to the Campbell rock quarry at Beverly in a cab they had hired. When I got off work, that's when the news come that they'd picked him up. That morning was the last time I saw him alive.

"The owner of Liberty Café come in Monday morning when I was fixing breakfast. He said, 'They say they stole him out of jail. I'm sorry. They done murdered your son.'

"I tried to get a ride over to Pickens from Liberty to see my boy at the jail on Sunday but couldn't. If I had knowed that he would only be in that jail one day, I would have moved heaven and earth to see him one last time. When I got word that they had killed him, I sent for the children at school. My two other boys was up North in the navy but they come down for the burial.

"Sheriff Mauldin lived not three blocks away from the Pickens jail and he didn't hear them men coming to get Willie that night? That old jail keeper didn't even have a gun?

"Did you hear about the boycott over in Greenville against those taxicab companies? Colored folks refused to call any cab except a Checker since none of them was in this. They must have hurt the taxicab people because they offered to take any colored person to church for free if they would take their cabs!

"I hear Governor Thurmond wrote to Mrs. Brown to tell her how sorry he was for her loss. I got no letter from the governor; I didn't expect none.

"They called from the funeral home to ask when I wanted to come up and see Willie. I told them I didn't want to see him like that. I heard the undertaker said Willie's poor body was torn to pieces. I hope he didn't suffer, Lord. At least the Greenville papers wouldn't show the picture like the Anderson Daily Mail. Willie always had the sweetest smile. Looked younger than he was. And Brown told police he was stabbed by a big, black man!

"Willie was funeralized on Thursday at New Hope Baptist, right in the center of Liberty. Me and the children lived just a few blocks down the street from the church. Willie walked little Mary to New Hope on Sunday mornings to hear Bible stories. Not many people came; they was either scared or ashamed. Pastor Bailey took the service. S. C. Franks's hearse brought him over from Greenville to the church. Pastor Bailey didn't say nothing against Willie, but it was like his heart wasn't in it.

"At the end of the service they took him over to Abel Baptist Church, where my family had always gone. I had no money to put up a stone for Willie but the NAACP got together some money for the funeral. The church didn't charge for the opening of the grave. He's laid under a tree out there. But no stone. I haven't been back to where they laid him.

"My boy never got to tell his story."


Excerpted from Who Lynched Willie Earle? by Will Willimon. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prelude xi

Chapter 1 The Lynching 1

Confession: Jessie Lee Sammons 2

Testimony: Tessie Earle 7

February 1947 9

Chapter 2 Preparing to Preach 11

The Meeting 17

Preparation 19

Scripture 22

Chapter 3 "Who Lynched Willie Earle?" 23

The Trial 33

Chapter 4 Assessing the Sermon 37

Public Witness 37

Civil Religion 40

Faith in American Justice 43

Scant Biblical Support 45

Not about Us 47

Bodily Absence 49

The Victim 52

Chapter 5 Christian Talk about the Sin of Racism 55

Good News 57

Denial 58

Bias 61

Peculiarly Christian Talk about Race 63

Sin 67

Repentance 70

Works of Love 80

Chapter 6 Preaching That Confronts Racism 91

Theology Rather Than Anthropology 92

Exorcism 95

Can We Talk? 97

Being Biblical 99

Conversion 101

More Than Moralism 107

Narrative 115

The Preacher as Pastor 117

Time to Preach 126

Postlude 131

Index of Names 133

Index of Subjects 137

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