The law originally was designed to stop the Jim Crow-era lynching
of black men. But in recent years, South Carolina's lynching law
mainly had targeted African-American gang members.
In what's being seen as an attempt at redemption by a state
touched by recent political embarrassment, a panel of South Carolina
lawmakers has voted to change the state's lynching law.
Why? Ostensibly because prosecutors had abused it to put bar-
fight participants in prison for up to 20 years. But the real issue
ran even deeper, a key lawmaker acknowledges: For decades, the law
has been used to address African-American gang activity, with over
half of all lynching charges and convictions being levied against
The South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission voted Monday to
rename the law "assault and battery by a mob" and to soften
consequences for situations in which no one was killed or seriously
injured in an attack by two or more people on a single victim.
The emotional and historical power of the word "lynching" -
especially in the Deep South, where the majority of lynchings
happened - has long been seen by critics as especially cruel when
applied to instances in which black men are arrested.
'Lynching is a particular type of crime'"Lynching is a particular
type of crime that has been recognized socially and by the state as
having certain distinct attributes, and so the [South Carolina
lynching law] is a corruption not only of the idea of what a
lynching is, but also the historical memory of what a lynching is,"
says University of North Carolina history Prof. Fitzhugh Brundage,
who has written on black historical memory in the South since the
Civil War. "If three juveniles beating on another juvenile who's a
member of another school gang is considered a lynching, then
lynching is absolutely pervasive in America," he adds. The South
Carolina lynching law has been used to prosecute both blacks and
whites, but came under fire in 2003 when the Associated Press
reported that it was being frequently used and that 69 percent of
its targets were young black men, and 67 percent of those convicted
for lynching were black. Critics point out that Deep South states
were never so aggressive in pursuing lynching charges when blacks in
the South feared actual mob killings in the late 19th century and
early 20th century.
Lynching law a tool to fight gang crime?For law enforcement
agencies, however, the law had become an effective tool to fight
urban gang crime. Former Charleston, S.C., police chief Reuben
Greenberg, the city's first black chief, told the AP that he had
used it many times, primarily to control gang problems in the old
port city. Trey Walker, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry
McMaster, told the AP in 2003 that since there's no mention of race
in the statue, "The law is colorblind. …