A few weeks ago, when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson yelled out “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care speech, J. Anthony Brown, TJMS sidekick and native South Carolinian, announced that he was no longer from that state – he was done. For as long as he could remember, he’d lived with blatant racism, segregation, Jim Crow laws and a place that still boldly flies the Confederate flag outside its State House. But a congressman from his state calling the first black president a liar was more than he could take.
I’m not from there, but I’ve got my own very personal issues with the state of South Carolina. Next week, I’ll go the to the state appeals court in Columbia to try to get pardons for my two great-uncles who were put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.
By participating in genealogy study conducted by Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, I learned a family secret that led me to try to right a nearly 100-year-old wrong.
Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed on Sept. 29, 1915 after they were arrested and convicted for killing a woman. According to research, my uncles were framed by another black man, one who was jealous of their success in the community.
Now, Skip Gates, a South Carolina attorney and I are going to try get justice for these two great-uncles of mine who could probably never imagine that they’d have generations of nephews that include my brother, me and my two sons who would care enough about their fate – or even be aware of it – to have them posthumously exonerated.
We have reason to believe we will be successful at officially clearing the names of Uncle Thomas and Uncle Meeks because there are so many facts that point to their innocence. Even white folks testified on their behalf, and that’s saying a lot for 1915 in South Carolina.
But there are no guarantees. We are talking about South Carolina, after all. And even though we’re talking about nearly 100 years ago when this atrocity was committed, I have to look at the whole picture. So much has changed, but so much is still the same. I find it eerie that the idea of exonerating my uncles unfolded as the country prepared to elect the country’s first black President. And that same president had to suck up the indignity of being called a lie before Congress by a congressman from South Carolina.
I think about my great-uncles taking that walk from their jail cells to the electric chair, knowing they were innocent, how my grandmother suffered the pain of losing two sons on the same day, and I can get real angry. There was no advocacy group for her to call, no National Action Network or TJMS. Her only recourse was to pack up, get out of town and start over.
I can get mad or I can get some satisfaction in knowing she did a lot of things right. There’s a lot to be said for fighting for what’s right, but there’s also a lot to be said for moving forward. When she arrived in Plant City, Florida, she could have given up. But she continued to press on, stressing the kinds of values that got passed down to us: The importance of family, education and giving back.
And now, almost a 100 years later, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and even a great-great-granddaughter whose name is Griffin – will be there to witness the decision of whether her sons will finally get justice. And to me, that in itself is worth celebrating
My family members weren’t the only innocent victims who faced what must have seemed like an insurmountable challenge back then. And we know that senseless murders, whether rooted in racism or gang violence, continue to tear the hearts out of families every day. Tragedy doesn’t care where it strikes, and we can’t control it. We can only control whether we allow it to destroy our families.
We have the power to move forward, building on the sturdy foundation our ancestors laid down for us. If you weren’t blessed to have it like that, you can begin laying a new foundation for your family today. It’s never too late to do the right thing.