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George Stinney: How the Tragic Death of One Black Teen Shares Similarities to So Many Others

02/04/2015 01:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

George Stinney mugshot. Stinney was executed in 1944 for murder at age 14. He was youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th Century.

Carmen T. Mullen, a South Carolina state judge, recently vacated the conviction of George Stinney for the killing of two white girls, finding that the case was riddled with “fundamental, constitutional violations of due process.” She added: “it is highly likely that the Defendant was coerced into confessing to the crimes due to the power differential between his position as a fourteen-year-old black male apprehended and questioned by white, uniformed law enforcement in a small, segregated mill town in South Carolina.”

The judge’s action, however, did not do George Stinney one bit of good. He was executed by the state of South Carolina for that murder more than seventy years ago, at the age of fourteen. No one younger was executed during the twentieth century in the United States.

On the one hand, we can certainly say that what happened to George Stinney would not have happened today. The trial took place in a county where three out of every four people were black, yet Stinney’s jury was 100 percent white. The sole evidence of his confession was the say so of the local sheriff. Stinney was questioned without a lawyer present, and denied having confessed during his trial. His appointed attorney had never before represented any defendant in a criminal case, and during this trial —for capital murder—doesn’t appear to have done anything to defend his client. He asked no questions of the prosecution’s witnesses, and didn’t call a single defense witness. Three hours was the duration of the entire trial. The jury required all of ten minutes to convict and sentence George Stinney to die, and the state of South Carolina electrocuted him less than three months after his arrest.

Things would not have gone that way today, and we must give our thanks for that to those who fought, bled, and themselves died so that the laws of our land would finally—one hundred years after emancipation and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment—treat black, white, and all Americans of every race the same. Yes, discrimination is now illegal, and no injustice as blatant as that which South Carolina visited on George Stinney would stand today. Progress is real. Yet, of course, our progress on the matter of American racism is not complete. Better, in the words of President Obama, is not good enough.

In thinking about that particular Jim Crow-era injustice, I couldn’t help but think of the injustices that continue to occur, different as they are. George Stinney was fourteen. Tamir Rice was twelve. The murder of George Stinney was deliberate, it followed a path carefully mapped out by the highest authorities in the government of his state, one backed by the overwhelming majority of white South Carolinians, and one deeply embedded in the naked and total oppression of African Americans.

The killing of Tamir Rice was not the same kind of killing. One would have to deny obvious facts, and stretch words like structural racism beyond their meaning in order to claim that they were. Nevertheless, similarities do exist. Both of these children were killed by an officer representing our government, the one that is supposed to guarantee the rights of all citizens. Although Cleveland police officer Tim Loehmann certainly meant to shoot Tamir Rice—a boy armed only with a toy gun that shot plastic pellets—the entire chain of events that led to the shooting was, according to the New York Times, “a series of miscommunications, tactical errors and institutional failures by the Cleveland police [that] cascaded into one irreversible mistake.”

Beyond that, I would add another factor that caused the death of Tamir Rice: the fact that our society, on the whole, devalues and even dehumanizes young black men to the point that a police officer doesn’t even entertain the possibility that what he is seeing is a barely pubescent boy playing. Instead, in the words of the officer who called in the shooting, he saw a “black male, maybe 20.” Not a kid. A thug. A predator. A criminal. We saw the same kind of bigotry from Ferguson’s Officer Darren Wilson, who fired multiple shots into Michael Brown after they had previously struggled over the officer’s gun and Brown had fled, then stopped, and turned back toward him. At that point, Wilson claimed that Brown looked “like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots.” In the moments before killing him, Wilson saw Mike Brown as both superhuman and less than human at the same time.

On the one hand, Officers Wilson and Loehmann were individuals, acting in the heat of the moment, whereas the killers of George Stinney had all the time in the world, and were carrying out the express policy of their state. But in reality Wilson and Loehmann are also products of the police departments that trained them, the communities that raised them, and the culture that educated them. 

In the end these killings were different, but they differ only in degree, not in kind.

This post is part of the "28 Black Lives That Matter" series produced by The Huffington Post for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will shine a spotlight on one African-American individual who made headlines in 2014 -- mostly in circumstances we all wished had not taken place. This series will pay tribute to these individuals and address the underlying circumstances that led to their unfortunate outcomes. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #28BlackLives -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.