Martin Luther King had a dream “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’ve handled few juvenile criminal cases in my career. One from 1997 still has me chuckling at the ironies. I frequently wonder what MLK would have thought of it.
This was back-in-the-day when Charleston County’s Academic Magnet High School–one of the best public schools in the country–shared its campus with Burke High School–the sort of dysfunctional urban high school in which much intellectual firepower is employed figuring out ways to elevate it to being even adequate to the task of teaching our youth. A large group of African American students from Burke had decided to gang up upon, and kick and punch, a few Academic Magnet students. I was court appointed to defend one of the Burke students. I actually had the charges dismissed by successfully employing what I call the “Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘Gimme Three Steps’ defense”–basically my client had spotted trouble and headed in the opposite direction.
However what I found so ironic about this case that I still recall it fourteen years later was the charges that had been brought against the defendants, S.C. Code § 16-3-210(C) a/k/a Second Degree Lynching, and the race of the defendants and their victims. Second degree lynching occurs when an “assemblage of two or more persons, without color or authority of law, for the premeditated purpose and with the premeditated intent of committing an act of violence upon the person of another” and such violence “results in serious bodily injury to the person.” The reasons these defendants had ganged up on these victims is that the victims were “acting white” in attempting to obtain the superior education that Academic Magnet offered. Yes, a group of African American students had been charged with lynching another group of African American students.
It was the dream of civil rights leaders from reconstruction through the 1960s that our state and federal governments would treat the matter of lynching seriously. There is a long history of whites lynching African Americans as a method of terrorizing those who would exercise their civil rights. The United States Senate resisted and filibustered for decades to prevent the enactment of a federal anti-lynching law. It was a great achievement for the civil rights movement when government started using the law to prosecute white terror against African Americans. It was also a great achievement for African Americans to integrate public schools, especially in the South, and to have African Americans be able to attend schools such as the Academic Magnet in which they could obtain an exceptional education within the public school system.
Martin Luther King dreamed of a South in which oppression ended and freedom and justice prevailed. This dream was, and remains, a vivid dream, a glorious dream. It would have made him sad that African American youth were being lynched while trying to obtain an education. He would have considered it justice that their oppressors were finally being made to answer for their oppression.
These are the only lynching charges I will probably ever defend. I could not guess how Martin Luther King would weigh the ironies of a lynching statute being used to prosecute African American youth who were preventing other African American youth from obtaining an education–his people as the oppressor of his people. I know he had a dream. This wasn’t it.