By Airielle Lowe
Alexander M. Rivera, a Black reporter and photographer for The Pittsburgh Courier, was on assignment to cover “the trial of the century” as he and others described it to readers, a trial that could mark a turning point in the legacy of lynching in the South.
The Courier was read each week by hundreds of thousands of people around the nation, the largest circulation of any publication of the Black press at the time.
This work is a collaboration of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and the University of Arkansas.
It was May 1947, and the mantra of some white politicians in formerly Confederate states was that a new South had emerged, that the old days had gone with the wind. Many espoused that the legal, cultural and economic face of the region was no longer the mug of the Jim Crow past.
But what Rivera would come to understand was that his press credentials, his experience as a naval intelligence officer, his studies at Howard University and his upbringing as a member of a middle-class North Carolina family wouldn’t matter.
Professionally, he was “A.M. Rivera Jr., Staff Correspondent.” But in Greenville, South Carolina at that time, he was just another Black man.
They entered the courthouse not through the front door but through one on the side, and proceeded upstairs to their designated seats in the balcony. White spectators and white reporters sat on the main floor. Rivera was told his place was upstairs. He covered the trial from there.
Tension in town was high, and guns could be found in many unexpected places, even an ice cream parlor, Rivera discovered.
“The guy who was working on the counter leaned over to pick up some ice cream and when he leaned up I could see a pistol sticking out of his back pocket. I said, ‘Oh, Lord,’” Rivera recalled years later in an oral history interview with “Documenting the American South,” a digital project sponsored by the University Library at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The press center for Black reporters covering the trial was the home of a Black minister who also was chairman of the local chapter of the NAACP. He panicked one day when he noticed Rivera sitting and typing in front of a window in the house.
“He came in to me and he virtually tackled me: ‘Are you crazy? … You’re sitting right in front of that window. Anybody could shoot you. A sniper [could] hit you. You wouldn’t even know anything about it,’” Rivera told the interviewer.
On one Sunday, the minister put the text of his sermon for the day in his briefcase, and his gun in his pocket.
“You don’t need a pistol,” Rivera recalled telling him. “You’re a man of God. I thought God would take care of you. ‘Yeah, I believe that,’ he said. ‘But there’s nothing in the Bible that says I can’t take care of myself until God gets here.’”
Thirty-one white men were on trial for conspiring to murder Willie Earle, who had been lynched three months earlier. That alone was extraordinary. Most accused lynchers were never publicly identified, and fewer still indicted and tried, much less found guilty.
The prosecution had statements from 26 of those involved, including five who identified the one who fired the shotgun blast that killed Earle. Yet none was convicted. Parts of white Greenville rejoiced at the verdicts and parts of Black Greenville feared what might come, Rivera reported in a front-page story in the May 31, 1947, edition of The Courier.
“The implications are that the verdict will be taken as a signal for a newly inspired reign of terror against Negroes throughout the South. Negroes in Greenville carry pistols day and night, even the ministers have come to realize that a home in South Carolina should be blessed by Him, but protected by a shotgun,” Rivera wrote.
“One Negro businessman told The Courier, ‘the only thing I see to do is quietly sell everything and move out.’”
The trial was a case study in how even in a court of law and despite substantial evidence, including confessions, white vigilantes could escape accountability for killing a Black person in cold blood and public view.
William B. Gravely’s 2019 book, “They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim,” reconstructed the killing, the trial and its aftermath, and how it was covered by the news media, based on exhaustive research, government records and contemporary newspaper accounts.
Gravely said reporters from the Black press were “a rich set of resources” for learning how Black South Carolinians viewed the developments. “A lot of connections among African Americans in the late 19th and throughout the early 20th century before TV and stuff like that, were these local newspapers,” Gravely said in an interview.
Black newspapers published photos of the body, at times accompanied by graphic headlines. “Mobbers Try to Carve Out Man’s Heart,” the Amsterdam News blared, and The Pittsburgh Courier published a photo of the body, describing the result as “bestiality in keeping with cannibalism.”
From his perch in the colored seating section of the courthouse, Rivera observed with astonishment the beginning of the end of what he called “the biggest mass lynching trial in American history.”
“Surprise followed surprise in the Greenville County Criminal Court here Monday morning,” he reported on The Courier’s front page May 24, 1947. “Judge J. Robert Martin Jr. ordered a verdict of directed acquittal for three of the thirty-one white men charged with lynching Willie Earle last February … and an hour later, in a dramatic move, defense attorneys rested their cases for the remaining twenty-eight defendants without offering a single piece of evidence … and without calling a single witness.”
Four pictures he took were stripped across the top of the page, including one of those hoping to get inside the courthouse. “Third photo from left shows Negroes gathered at their jim-crow entrance to the balcony from which they observe the trial. It is a side entrance, three and one-half feet wide,” the caption read.
Rivera would ultimately be described as “a nationally renowned and prominent photojournalist” who had made “invaluable contributions to the world through his photography” when North Carolina Central University in Durham, announced his death in 2008 at the age of 95.
The most impactful photographs from the lynching and the trial were those of Earle’s body.
It had been so badly mutilated by the mob that took his life that the mortician who retrieved it told the Richmond Afro-American that it was one of “the worst” sights he’d seen as a funeral director, Gravely wrote. “‘It was just as if he’d been run over by a train,’” S. C. Franks said.
After viewing the photo, Gravely wrote, Earle’s mother told an interviewer “she didn’t want to see his body in the mortician’s parlor.”
Less than a decade later, another Black mother, the mother of Emmett Till, would be confronted with another gruesome photo of her son’s body after lynchers finished their work. Her decision would have profound consequences.