Remember George Stinney. We must remember George Junius Stinney Jr. because he died too young, because he died a victim of injustice, because his death bears witness to an era and a society without regard or pity for blacks, even if they were only 14 years old. With Mrhis new novel illustrated by Barroux, the French writer Christophe Léon (Mangoes will stay green, Hit and Run, Baba!, etc.) literally resuscitates the teenager sentenced to death and executed by electrocution on June 16, 1944 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Without pathos or voyeurism, but with a lot of empathy, the committed author gives the floor to the child, whose surname he has slightly modified: “My name is Martin Julius Crow Jr. I am not a fictional being , Missie. Seventy-seven years after they grilled my body, I was rehabilitated. I’m the little nigga saved from oblivion. It doesn’t matter to me in the slightest. And for you, Missié, does it matter? »
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“George imagined himself an artist”
If he places his story in Cookeville, Putnam County, Tennessee, the true and tragic story of George Junius Stinney Jr. begins in Pinewood, South Carolina, where he was born on October 21, 1929. Of his short life, we obviously do not know much, so many years after the fact. His father worked in a sawmill, his mother was a canteen worker. A good student at school, he liked to take care of the garden and the animals.
In 2014, then As the child’s family began proceedings to have his case reviewed, two of his sisters, then in their 70s, testified about their brother. For one of them, Aime Stinney Ruffner, George imagined himself an artist: “Every time he saw a plane in the sky, he tried to draw it. He was calm, but intelligent. Fate – or rather the cruelty of a deeply racist society – did not allow the calm teenager to become a man.
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On March 23, 1944, two young girls set off on their bicycles to pick wild flowers. Their names are Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames. The first is eleven years old, the second seven. They are both white. They will be found dead the next day in a ditch, not far from the house of Stinney, beaten up, the skull burst. George Stinney Jr., who saw them before the tragedy, had the misfortune to tell it. Yes, he met the two girls not far from the railway line separating the black neighborhoods from the white neighborhoods of the town of Alcolu, County Clarendon. Her sister also remembers: “They asked us where they could find flowers to make a bouquet. We told them we didn’t know. They left on their side. »
For white investigators, look no further, the 14-year-old black teenager is the perfect culprit. They pick him up at his house, extort a confession, forbid his family to visit him. The trial – if that word can be used at all – takes place on April 24 in the Clarendon County Courthouse. It begins at 12:30 p.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m. The all-white jury deliberates for less than ten minutes before finding George Stinney Jr. guilty of the double murder.
Despite the mobilization aroused by the case, Governor Olin D. Johnston refuses to pardon the child. “It might be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the little girl and raped the big one. Then he killed the tall one and raped her corpse. Twenty minutes later, he came back to rape her again, but his body was too cold. All of this, he acknowledged,” wrote the governor, relying in reality on mere rumours, the medical-legal reports in no way proving that the girls were raped.
Eight endless minutes
Less than three months later, on June 16, 1944, George Stinney Jr. was taken to the electric chair. The death material is not adapted to the corpulence of a child: it must be raised and the mask does not fit on his face. His agony will last eight interminable minutes before he is pronounced dead.
In MrChristophe Léon does not dwell on the horror of Calvary, preferring to slip a tiny note of hope in the last thoughts of the young man: “I knew what my vocation was. Why I was on earth. At that precise moment, the entire destiny of my people, of black Americans, of my ancestors, was in my hands. I was not a number. Not a dog. Not a piece of furniture. I was Martin Julius Crow Jr., son of Jo and Sarah Crow, brother of Ida and Minnie Crow, grandson of Julius my grandfather and Billy my grandmother. I was a man. I was the flesh and the living memory of a people. I was no longer 13, but thousands of years old. If my eyes were crying. If my body was shaking. If the sweat invaded my forehead. My soul was immortal and inviolable. »
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If Christophe Léon chose the surname of Crow rather than that of Stinney in Mr, it is with the intention of recalling the weight of the American so-called “Jim Crow” laws, put in place to hinder the rights of blacks in the Southern States and effective between 1877 and 1964. “If I had given him his real name, that would have blocked me a little in my approach, confides the novelist. I would have felt compelled to follow the story as it unfolded, and I would have written a documentary. I prefer a more detached approach, which in my opinion touches the reader more. »
Certainly, nothing will give George Stinney back the life that was taken from him. But yes, his soul is immortal: there are many authors who today pay homage to him and bring him to life through books and films. In 1988, American David Stout was inspired by the case to write Carolina Skeletons – George Stinney appears there as Linus Bragg.
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The book, which won the Edgar Allan Poe Prize for Best First Novel, was adapted for film in 1991 by John Erman (An ideal culprit). More recently, writers Georges Cocks and Florence Cadier have both taken an interest in the case, publishing respectively Joe Steanay (2017, independent edition) and born guilty (2020, High Talents). In The green Line (Frank Darabont, 1999), the character of John Coffey could well have been inspired by the teenager: he too is wrongly accused of the murder of two white girls…
In 2014, 70 years after Stinney’s death, the judgment that landed him on death row was overturned due to numerous irregularities that marred its course. The scarcity of archives and the disappearance of most of the exhibits make it almost impossible to hold a retrial which would shed light on the case. But remembering George Stinney Jr, one of the youngest death row inmates in US history, like remembering George Floyd, is already facing the injustices of an era – and arm to fight them.
Mrby Christophe Léon, illustrated by Barroux, D’eux editions, 86 pages, 13,90 euros