On the second day of July in 1941, my great grandfather was shot to death a few hours before midnight. Claude R. DuBose was a small town police officer, and he was responding to a call when a 19-year old named Zonnie Frasier, Jr. grabbed his gun and shot him multiple times in the back. He survived for only a few minutes after the shooting, dying en route to the hospital.
His killer was a young black man, and the electricity of the racial climate in Lamar, South Carolina was more than tenuous at that point in history. A state newspaper told the story of Claude DuBose, a proud cop slain by what the author describes as something less than a human:
"Night policeman Claude DuBose was shot to death here about 10 o'clock last night when he entered a Negro establishment on Main Street to arrest a Negress who allegedly was being disorderly.
The entire community was in an uproar in a search for a man who was said to have diverted the officer's attention inside the establishment, grabbed the policeman's gun out of latter's hand and fired three times."
My grandfather played an active role in Frasier's murder trial. Though he wanted to see a conviction, he took a position that was extraordinary for someone in his position. It would have been remarkable for any white person in rural South Carolina to stand against the death penalty for the killer of a white cop. My grandfather's plea for Zonnie Frasier's life was even more remarkable when you consider his role as a primary member of the victim's family.
The News and Courier ran the story detailing the process that convicted Zonnie Frasier. In an article titled Lamar Negro Found Guilty, some newspaperman wrote:
"A jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder, automatically carrying the death sentence, for Zonnie Frasier, nineteen-year-old negro charged with the slaying of night policeman Claude DuBose, of Lamar.
The verdict was reached after the jury had been out for only a short time. Paul Howle was foreman.
The negro sat grim-faced as the verdict of the jury was read. Then he was hurried away by Sheriff C.A. Grinnell and his deputies. He was arrested only a few days ago after a manhunt which had extended over several months...He appeared intensely interested in the testimony and repeated several times on the witness stand that 'I didn't shoot Mr. DuBose.'"
My grandfather was ultimately unsuccessful in his appeals for mercy. The state of South Carolina killed Zonnie Frasier, Jr. in December of 1942. But that was one of the last times my grandfather would be unsuccessful at anything, and his remarkable capacity for mercy set him on the path to a graceful life well ahead of its time.
In late 1941, my grandfather was a 17-year old making a plea for life that exhibited wisdom well beyond his years. On June 6, 1944, he was a 19-year old living a sort of bravery that shouldn't be forgotten. That was Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion better known to most as "D-Day." A Naval seaman, he served during the darkest days of World War II. When he returned, he settled into a quiet life as a local business man, maintaining the family jewelry store on the Darlington town square for more than 50 years.
During his life, I had the pleasure of getting to know him very well. I never heard him speak of his father's murder or the man who had pulled the trigger. I never felt in him the desire for vengeance. He must have had a peace about his role in the ordeal, knowing that he had stood in the face of a farce of a process when that wasn't the popular move.
Later, he would do business with so-called "people of color" during a time when many white business people would not. He even provided small amounts of credit to some of his black customers. At his funeral a few years ago, an older gentleman approached me and my dad. He told a couple of stories before letting us know that my grandfather had helped him with the engagement ring his wife still wore. This wouldn't have been such a significant story at a jeweler's funeral if not for the obvious racial implications of the act.
He lived at peace with all men, not indulging the ugly racism all around him. While others called his father's killer a monster, he recognized the humanity of a young man whose mother shared the name of my grandmother - Beulah.
As I write about the criminal justice system, the death penalty, and racism in America, I like to think of myself as taking the tough position. I understand the inherent challenges involved in raging against the machine that chews up so many lives. Then I think of my grandfather, whose position was much more difficult. A man who recognized the inadequacy of the South Carolina death penalty machine as a ripe 17-year old who had just lost his father to a horrible murder. I think about him taking an almost unthinkable position - advocating for the life of an accused black killer of a white cop, and his father, no less. Bill DuBose lived a peaceful life because he granted mercy and humanity to his fellow man.