“Racism’s Lessons Learned in Upstate: A 60-Year Retrospective.” Greenville [SC] News 14 June 2007. 1B, 4B.

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  RacismÕs Lessons Learned in Upstate: A 60-Year Retrospective Greenville News 14 June 2007. 1B, 4B. Sean Patrick OÕRourke* Sixty years ago today, Rebecca West published ÒOpera in GreenvilleÓ in The New Yorker . Time ,  Life  and  Newsweek  all covered the Willie Earle lynching trial but WestÕs article, with its biting satire and deep sense of irony, placed Greenville in the worst light. In the glare of her moral condemnation, our community looked bad. Taking her cue from the Sunday evening songs and services at First Baptist Church,  West characterized Greenville as a combination of opera and rhetoric, melodrama to distract residents from Òthe cloying, clinging heatÓ and persuasion to convince them that it wasnÕt really that hot after all. The heat, of course, was both literal and figurative, for the Willie Earle murder trial was held in mid-May and involved all of the theatrics of a southern courtroom when race was an issue: segregated seating, appeals to community and friendship, the specter of black brutality, the sense that Òwe all knowÓ what ought to happen in cases like these and, above all, manners. Most residents of Greenville today know at least the crude outlines of the story. Willie Earle, a 24-year-old black man who suffered from epilepsy, lost his job as a truck driver and turned to drink. On the night of the February 15, 1947, cabdriver Thomas Brown agreed to take Earle to Liberty. Brown was found stabbed three times (he later died) and Pickens police took Earle into custody on suspicion of murder. Early on the morning of February 17 th  a mob, most of them wearing cabdriversÕ caps, took Earle from the Pickens County jail, drove him across the Greenville County line, and lynched him.  At 6:00 am a black-owned funeral home heard that there was a Òdead niggerÓ in need of their services. 31 defendants stood trial for the lynching, all white and all but three of them cab drivers.  All were allowed to have their families sit with them at trial. Despite nine statements from different witnesses that Roosevelt Carlos Hurd, Sr. had fired the shots that killed Earle and despite the defenseÕs failure to offer any testimony, the all-white jury acquitted all defendants after less than seven hours of deliberation.  At the end of her article, West quoted Òtwo decent Greenville peopleÓ who were distraught at the outcome of the trial. ÒThis is only the beginning,Ó the man said. ÒItÕs like a fever,Ó the woman said. ÒIt spreads, itÕs an infection, itÕs just like a fever.Ó They were right. The fever of racism had seized the South and it took decades of civil rights activism to break it. But we know all that. The question WestÕs article raises for us today is, are we still a community that lives in and by the bad opera of the past? Do we still allow ourselves to  be deluded by the loose veracity of our own persuasive words?   By nearly any measure racial discrimination has decreased. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, along with an impressive line of Supreme Court cases, eviscerated the legal bases of segregation. Blacks and whites vote together, go to schools together, eat in the same restaurants, and sleep in the same hotels.  And yet we have not broken our addiction to the fa•ade of opera and the emptiness of misleading rhetoric completely. We continue to use Òheritage,Ó Òfamily,Ó Òfreedom,Ó and ÒtraditionÓ in debates over the confederate flag at the state house and the MLK Holiday in Greenville. We continue to mislead and excuse ourselves instead of addressing directly the discouraging disparity in educational opportunities between whites and  blacks. And we seem to dismiss all too quickly claims of disparate treatment of black and white victims of crime. Perhaps the fever of racism is like malaria, prone to long stages of dormancy but all too likely to recur under stress. If so, we must constantly inoculate ourselves against its toxin.  And we should remember how opera in Greenville looked to the rest of the world. Sidebar: Rebecca West was born Cicely Fairfield in Kerry, Ireland in 1892. She took the name Rebecca West after the character in IbsenÕs ÒRosmersholmÓ and achieved fame as a suffragist, political analyst, and crusading journalist. After her death in 1983 she was eulogized as one of the Ògreat women of the centuryÓ and even Òthe greatest woman since Elizabeth I.Ó For more information visit the Rebecca West Society website, which can be found at http://www.rebeccawestsociety.org/. ÒOpera in GreenvilleÓ was recently reprinted in Jon MeachemÕs Voices in Our Blood   (Random House, 2001). *Sean Patrick OÕRourke teaches courses in African-American protest and American  public discourse at Furman University, where he serves as Chair of the Communication Studies department.
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