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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Willie Earl lynching case in South Carolina

Rivera describes his coverage of the Willie Earl lynching case in South Carolina for the <cite>Pittsburgh Courier</cite>. In particular, Rivera describes how people reacted to him as a photojournalist. Because local African Americans feared retaliation, Rivera had trouble finding a place to stay. In addition, he was asked by the judge to cover the trial from the balcony so as not to stir up too much public dissent to his presence. Finally, he describes the role of the FBI in investigating the case and the inevitable outcome of the trial.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Alexander M. Rivera, November 30, 2001. Interview C-0297. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Willie Earle was a young black guy. He left South Carolina and went and lived in New York. He came back to South Carolina. As the story goes he made a proposal to some white girl. She reported it, and nothing really, nothing happened. He was locked up, but then they came to the prison. The person in charge of the prison to turn him over to the mob, and they were, they lynched him. The story and I think you'll see it in there. The story is that none of it was true. It's just some hotheads, and that was in '47 in Greenville.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Do you remember when you first went over to, when did you first hear about the lynching and -
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
The next day.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
You heard about it the next day. And were you in Greenville the next day?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
No, I was here. But the paper said go immediately. So I went immediately. We got a chance to do some investigation. I went of course, we didn't have any hotels. So I knew, I didn't know. I knew a person who knew a lady there whose husband was an undertaker. This guy said, 'Well now she got a big old house and I'm sure she's got some extra room.' So she said now you go and I'll tell them you're coming. He didn't tell her why I was coming. So I went and I stayed in a beautiful house, a big old house. The next morning she came, and she said, 'I didn't know you were involved in this case.' She says, 'I'm sorry.' She said, 'I'm really sorry but being involved in it, I'm by myself.' And she said, 'Anything could happen to me.' So she had asked me to leave. So I didn't know anybody else there. In fact I didn't know her until I got there. So she referred me to this minister who also was president of the NAACP. So I went over and talked to him, and he said yeah you can stay in my house. He said take whatever fare I had and said fine. So I went over to his house and I stayed there. Most of the reporters, the black reporters who came to town also came there. So it was, that was headquarters for us. I went to see, I went to the courthouse to present my credentials - [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
So he slammed the door. I stood out there a long time waiting on him to come back. He came back in and says, 'Judge Martin wants to see you.' I went in. He says, 'It's going to be a tough case.' He says, 'I'm going for a conviction.' There were thirty-two taxi cab drivers involved in it. He said, 'I'm going for a conviction.' He said, 'South Carolina law requires that anybody being charged with a capital offense is eligible to have a kin sit with them.' So instead of thirty-two it was sixty-four. So he says now, 'I can't give you, I can't give you any kind of protection. You are walking around here with this camera around your neck, it looks like an expensive camera.' He said, 'These people have an idea that you can use it.' I said, 'I can.' So he said, 'It's going to be a very dangerous place.' He said, 'I don't want you sitting down on this lower level here. I want you to go back out - ' I said, 'Oh no.' I thought, 'Oh Lord. I'm not going to be sitting down.' He said, he said, 'Really you would help me a lot if you would sit in the balcony.' I said, 'I don't think I can hear it.' He said, 'I'll see to it that you can hear everything.' So if I did as much as that, he said, 'Speak up.' So I stayed up there until the trial was over. The FBI got into it.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
They were down there huh?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
Oh yeah, they had gotten into it. They had investigated it. So it was well investigated from the inception to the leaving the scene of the, the FBI had everything. They had who rode in each car and where they sat in each car and all that. One car had a flat tire. The people in that car had to get out and get in another car. They had the rearrangement. The FBI had everything. This foreman of the jury was from seminary down there. When the trial was over, the Courier told me to stay there and get some local reaction. They didn't know anything about this trial. I'm leaving. So when the trial was over, I left. I got my reaction. I was in (). When they came back with the judgement, the jury said that that they had done what any red-blooded American would have done. So I said that's the reaction. I'm well aware I'm in (
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Why was it the taxi drivers they had organized amongst themselves?
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
The girl, the girl was related to a taxicab driver.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Oh okay. [Phone ringing]
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
I had a stroke. Last October, not this past but last. I had no paralysis except in my throat. For a long time I couldn't swallow. The doctor didn't think I was going to swallow again. But they were trying to figure out some kind of operation. I said, 'Give it time. Give it time.'
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Yeah.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
It makes you tired. So I'm able to swallow better. I can eat most anything I want.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Great. You got it back. But it was the taxi drivers that - it was one of the, she was related to -
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
It was one of them.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
One of the drivers.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
All of the taxi cab drivers got involved with it. That's what you call a lynching party there. The FBI, the FBI knew everything that went on. They'd interviewed them all. They had interviews from everybody. That didn't make any difference.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
No question about who did it or -
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
No. No. They knew. They knew everybody and who did it. There was no question about it. For the foreman of the jury to have said that they did what anybody, what any red-blooded American would've done. That was it.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So during the trial did you, you said you did your own investigating and you're I'd imagine you were talking to people in the black community. What kind of reactions were you getting? Were people willing to talk to you first of all? I'd imagine there would be a lot of fear.
ALEXANDER RIVERA:
There was a lot of tension in this town. First, when I first got there, I didn't recognize the tension. I said to a guy a guy who came in later, Henning, Robert Henning later. I said black people talking about tension. I don't feel it. He had covered the Scottsboro case. He had. He said there's more tension in this trial than anything I've ever seen. So then I got afraid because if it's here and I don't see it, then I'm subject to get hurt. Because I was moving around and asking everything. I remember going to ice cream parlor to get some ice cream. 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. So the minister that I was staying with there, two incidents, first I was sitting up. It was hot weather. I was sitting up in the window with the window open and I was typing. He came in to me and he virtually tackled me. ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You're sitting right in front of that window. Anybody could shoot you. A sniper hit you. You wouldn't even know anything about it.’ That frightened me. I pulled the blinds out and typing away from the window, stay away from the window. So we got ready to go to church, and he wanted all of us to go with him. I think he wanted to show off reporters (). So I said, ‘No, I'm not going.’ I said, ‘Look. I'm going to stay and rest in bed.’ So he said, ‘All right.’ He said, ‘I was hoping that you would go to church with me.’ So he packed his sermon in the briefcase and put a pistol in his pocket. I said, ‘Looky here. Wait a minute. Is that the only pistol in this house.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well you don't need a pistol. 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.’ So we all went to church and he preached. I never will forget it. He preached on the church to get a gun. Get a gun. He said, ‘( ) to town and go to Sears Roebuck and buy yourself a gun.’ He once had a pistol—
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So he told them.