Pastors explore how to preach to confront racism 70 years after S.C.’s last lynching

By Jessica Brodie

SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Seventy years after South Carolina’s last known lynching, a crowd gathered to remember the tragedy and share thoughts about what the church can do today to confront the sin of racism.

Retired Bishop Will Willimon, South Carolina Resident Bishop Jonathan Holston, scholar Will Gravely and a host of United Methodist pastors were among a handful who shared thoughts with the packed Leonard Auditorium at Wofford College Feb. 17 in “Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism.”

Earle was a 24-year-old African-American city sanitation worker who was accused of robbing and murdering his cab driver, Thomas Watson Brown, in Greenville in 1947. On Feb. 17, 1947, a mob of white cab drivers stormed the jailhouse in nearby Pickens, dragged Earle into a car and then murdered him. A subsequent trial by a jury of 12 white men acquitted the 31 men charged with the murder. It is one of the last known lynchings in the South, and the acquittal prompted passage of an anti-lynching bill in South Carolina that specified the death penalty as punishment.

Gravely shared historical information about the Earle lynching, and Willimon, whose new book “Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism” prompted the day’s conference, led talks on the challenges pastors often face on preaching against racism—and how to overcome those challenges. The day ended with a reading from “The Lynching,” a two-act play about the Earle lynching trial, and a panel discussion featuring Willimon, Holston and a slate of South Carolina United Methodist pastors: the Revs. Ken Nelson, Michael Turner, Drew Martin, Wendy Hudson-Jacoby, Megan Gray, Dr. James Howell and Wofford chaplain Dr. Ron Robinson.

Robinson opened the conference with a welcome to the auditorium, which he noted was itself built by slaves in 1851.

“Part of our history we have to come to terms with was this building was made by people who were slaves,” Robinson told the crowd, noting the building has endured across three centuries and has a memorial to those builders downstairs.

Robinson said the conference was being held to remember the Earle lynching as well as to address what he called “the continuing of the original sin in America—the sin of racism—and its role and place in our culture.” He lifted up those who have preached against racism over the years, particularly the late Rev. Hawley Lynn, a Pickens pastor whose anti-racism sermon after the lynching noted that all with racism were equally responsible for Earle’s murder.

Several Earle family members were in the crowd, including Earle’s cousin the Rev. Carleathea Benson, pastor of the Fairfield Charge of the UMC, who is also the chair of the South Carolina Conference’s Ethnic-Local Church Concerns committee.

‘They pulled him out of jail’

Gravely began by recounting events of the Earle lynching. Gravely himself was just 7 years old when the lynching occurred, but he has little memory of the tragedy. But he found himself drawn to the subject and couldn’t let it go. He has made it much of his life’s work since 1981.

Gravely shared how Earle was reportedly intoxicated but aware enough to say he had not robbed and attacked the Greenville cab driver. Imprisoned, he was to be questioned next day. But that night he was lynched; they found his still-warm body at daybreak.

Gravely said eight cabs made the trip from Greenville to the Pickens jail, angry and looking for a fight.

“They went inside the jail and pulled him out of jail into the lead car,” Gravely said.

Reports say the men questioned Earle and forced him to confess, and then they killed him.

Preaching at its best

Willimon shared how Lynn was a district superintendent in the South Carolina Conference when Willimon himself joined the conference, and Lynn’s courageous sermon inspired him and many others of Willimon’s time.

“Hawley was kind of a model to us—of church at its best and preaching at its best,” Willimon said. “He preached! He spoke up.” In the 1947 rural South, that’s “kind of amazing,” Willimon said.

Willimon said that over the years, many a pastor has paid a significant price for speaking up. In the 1970s when Willimon became a pastor, there was almost a rallying cry that pastors should speak out on dismantling the great social evil of racism, but in the 1940s, it was unpopular and sometimes dangerous. And yet the congregation received the sermon; Lynn recalled little negative reaction if any. They didn’t run him out of town.

“Hawley Lynn preached when there was legally enforced white supremacy,” Willimon said. “We preach today when white supremacy does not enjoy legal protection.”

And yet pastors face much controversy and criticism sometimes for speaking out even today.

‘We walk a fine line’

Next, Willimon—with help from Holston, Turner and Gray—dove into today’s challenges of confronting racism in preaching. His book encourages fellow preachers to have conversations about race, but doing that can be tough.

“The subject of race is very difficult because we walk a fine line,” Holston told the crowd, noting many people are afraid to talk about it. “The issues are around how do we discuss white privilege—something we just don’t talk about. There is underground racism now, not just what happens in what we see, but the insidious things that happen to keep people in poverty, uneducated, in economic straits.

“We cannot fully discuss all the issues of racism because it has tentacles that go out so far … and we fear where it will take us.”

Holston said many times, people worry a great deal about displeasing people, but the conversation has to happen.

White privilege

Turner, pastor of Advent UMC, Simpsonville, recalled preaching after the Emanuel 9 massacre in June 2015, when a white man shot nine unarmed African-American people, including the pastor, at a Bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The shooting rocked the state and the nation. A white pastor, Turner said what struck him about the experience was that he wasn’t really afraid to preach that sermon because of how his white church members would react, but rather how his African-American members would react.

“I really had a lot of worry about that. I worried just bringing it up would make them feel self-conscious,” Turner said. “And then I realized that just the idea that I could keep the awkwardness out of the room by not mentioning it is in itself white privilege.”

He said African-American people cannot not think about race, but the fact that Turner can go days without thinking much about race shows white privilege in subtle ways, he said.

Gray, pastor of Cokesbury UMC, Charleston, recalled being at a prayer service after Walter Scott was killed; Scott was an unarmed African-American man shot and killed by a white police officer in North Charleston in April 2015. About halfway through, she and another white pastor friend felt called to stand up and repent of their own white privilege.

“There were more African Americans in the room than white people, so there was a pretty good response, but every single one of my congregation members in that room was very unhappy,” Gray said. “They felt sideswiped, attacked—why would you say something like that, why apologize for us, we don’t feel that way.”

But while she got negative reaction then, something interesting happened. She learned the more people talk about racism, white privilege and other difficult issues, the more people become used to talking about it. A few weeks ago, Gray said, one of the people who had been upset with her for repenting of white privilege came to a district event where much the same thing was discussed, and that person took no issue with it at all, even said the event was great.

“The first time you say things, they might be awkward,” Gray said, but say them enough, and they start to open hearts, minds and doors.

Power of the pastor

Willimon said dialogue after the sermon is like an extension of the sermon. He said pastors have power, and it can be used to speak up and speak out.

“If you are a pastor of a church you are in an optimum place to talk (about race),” Willimon said.

Holston urged the crowd to not just read the book and be done but rather allow the conversation to continue.

“I hope it opens up an avenue for us to really be sensitive and conscious enough, to be willing to live into that and grow into that,” Holston said. “We need to begin to stretch ourselves a little bit and probe the things in our community and see how insidious those tentacles (of racism) are.”

Willimon’s book is available through Abingdon Press.

Historical marker to honor Willie Earle

Wofford College’s Office of the Chaplain is collecting funds for a historical marker in honor of Willie Earle, the victim of South Carolina’s last known lynching. Checks (payable to Wofford College and marked "Willie Earle Marker") may be sent to Office of the Chaplain, Wofford College, 429 North Church St., Spartanburg, SC 29303.

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