Rape Hysteria, Redux
by Carey Roberts --show me more like this
Can you imagine the German Bundestag issuing a formal apology for the Nazi atrocities, but then leaving out the fact that Jews were the primary victims?
Earlier this summer the U.S. Senate apologized for its earlier failures to approve anti-lynching legislation. The resolution was supported by liberal senators such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Biden of Delaware, and others.
The apology notes, “at least 4,742 people, predominantly African-Americans, were reported lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968.”
The resolution is well-intentioned, but it air-brushes out one essential fact: Virtually all of the victims were male, many of whom were accused of ravishing well-to-do white women.
Men so charged were summarily dragged away by the mob and strung from a tree. Once the crowd had gathered, men were stripped of their clothes and their dignity. Many had their bodies riddled with bullets. In the most gruesome cases, the men were burned at the stake.
The hysteria that surrounded these incidents was stoked by inflammatory headlines about “big black brutes” and “monsters in human form.” Newspaper articles featured caricatures of Black men with insatiable sexual appetites for white virgins. As Philip Dray notes in his book At the Hands of Persons Unknown, “the cumulative impression was of a world made precarious by Negroes.”
The fear of marauding male predators reached a fever pitch during the early part of the last century. In 1910 Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act, which forbade the interstate transport of white women “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
That law was used to prosecute championship boxer Jack Johnson for taking his white girlfriend, Lucille Cameron, to Chicago for “immoral purposes.” Even though the two soon married, Johnson was convicted in 1913, but fled to Europe to avoid serving time for a crime that he knew he had not committed.
Rape hysteria became a flashpoint in America’s broader race relations problems. Those relations reached their nadir during the Red Summer of 1919, when race riots broke out in more than 20 cities.
In Washington DC, news of the sexual assault of an officer’s wife triggered the spectacle of hundreds of uniformed sailors and soldiers who chased and beat Blacks, all within view of the US Capitol building. The report later turned out to be a hoax.
The slaying of innocent Black males continued for many years.
One of those innocents was Emmett Till, who one day pulled up to the grocery store in Money, Mississippi. On a dare, he took the hand of the cashier, a local beauty by the name of Carolyn Bryant, and asked, “How about a date, baby?” Mrs. Bryant was offended by the overture and word soon reached her husband.
A week later, the mutilated body of Emmett Till floated to the surface of the Tallahatchie River. He had been shot through the right temple and his skull had been struck with an ax.
That was August 1955. Emmett Till was 14 years old.
In 1991 Clarence Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court. He came to the post with a Yale Law School degree and broad legal experience. But then he was ambushed by Anita Hill, who claimed that Thomas had made sexually inappropriate remarks several years before.
Smarting under the allegation, Thomas complained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was the victim of “a high-tech lynching.” Mr. Thomas was saying that the fear of male sexuality that fueled the lynching of Black men decades before was the same hysteria that now drove people to obsess over Anita Hill’s over-blown allegation.
On June 9, 2005 Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, a bill that aims to thwart sexual and physical assaults of women. A reading of the proposed law describes a world made precarious by men. Sadly, the Act appeals to the same chivalrous instincts as when the zealotry surrounding virtuous womanhood swept our nation a century ago.
Only four days later, on June 13, the Senate expressed its “deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets” to the victims of lynching and their descendants.
And why did the Senate resolution forget to mention men in its apology?
Because the last thing that presidential hopeful Biden wants is for persons to draw historic parallels between the Violence Against Women Act which portends the widescale curtailment of men’s civil liberties, and the injustices that befell wrongly-accused Black men generations ago.
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