Wednesday, February 19, 2014


It is day three of a week long series of articles dealing with white supremacy and/or white skin privilege in the USA.  Today we take a look at the history of lynching...and the role of white women.  Although white women most certainly had less power than white men, they still were active participants in the realm of lynchings.  White women were also often given as an excuse for lynching.  Stories of black men victimizing the "purity and sanctity" of white women were very often given as the reason for lynchings in the South...and in the North. While the primary target of lynchings were black men,  white women were also kept in line by conforming to the white supremacist and patriarchal notions about them...and by the very real consequences those notions had for black folks.

PBS noted at its website:

Lynchings were frequently committed with the most flagrant public display. Like executions by guillotine in medieval times, lynchings were often advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white families. They were a kind of vigilantism where Southern white men saw themselves as protectors of their way of life and their white women.

As noted in an article by Margaret Johnson at Slate,  historian Crystal N. Feimster in her book "Souther Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching"

...tells us that white women allegedly raped by black men were often allowed to choose their attackers’ punishments and frequently helped mutilate, burn, and shoot the newly hung bodies. Instead of being called unwomanly for their public role in the bloodshed, female lynchers were praised as exemplary protectors of the race. As late as 1934, white women and children still attended lynchings as enthralled spectators, prompting the New Yorker to run this chilling illustration by Reginald Marsh. White women’s groups didn’t formally acknowledge that most lynchings had nothing to do with rape until after women won the vote, for which they had long felt in competition with black men.  

The story of  Rebecca Latimer Felton  who died in 1930 at the age of ninety-four, a writer and tireless campaigner for Progressive Era reforms, especially women's rights, and who was the first woman to serve in the US Senate is an ugly example of the contradictory and often racist nature of the type of women's movement she represented.  New Georgia Encyclopedia writes:

Felton was also known for her conservative racial views. In an 1897 speech she said that the biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of black rapists. "If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts," she said, "then I say lynch a thousand a week." She condemned anyone who dared to question the South's racial policies; when Andrew Sledd, a professor at Emory College, did just that in an article published in 1902 in the Atlantic Monthly, she was instrumental in forcing his resignation from the school.

It is important to note that all that I have just written is not merely a part of long ago history.  As the post below will argue, this "defend our women" theme has not gone away.  A quick peek at the trial of George Zimmerman makes this absolutely clear.  Feminist Jessica Valenti, writing at The Nation,  concerning the juries verdict and how all those white women jurors viewed the case says, 

...white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.

In regard to Juror B37 comments of why she felt that Trayvon Martin got what he deserved Valenti adds:

This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears. As Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out here at The Nation and on MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, defense attorneys stoked this fear deliberately and broadly.

To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.

They carefully made Martin—the victim—into that not-so-faceless bogeyman. Now, I don’t know what was in the jurors’ hearts—but the story the defense told and that juror B37 parroted is not a new one. It’s a story that ends with fear trumping empathy and humanity. 

Lauren Rankin continues with this them at PolicyMic:

 This kind of racist paternalism, the idea that women need to be protected from violent black men, underwrote much of this trial and was reflected in Juror B37’s deeply troubling words. Juror B37's comments reflect Defense Attorney Mark O’Mara’s racist bait that Trayvon Martin was an inherently suspicious, criminal, and perhaps violent character, simply because he was black, and that white women like her and defense Olivia Bertalan were better off because Zimmerman did what needed to be done to protect them. 

Never mind that George Zimmerman is the one with a history of domestic violence, who was charged with assaulting a police officer, who has been charged with felonies and misdemeanors multiple times. In that altercation, Juror B37's word reflect a construction of George Zimmerman as the “protector” of white womanhood. George Zimmerman seemingly racially profiled, shot, and killed a young black teenager, and Juror B37 seemingly saw nothing wrong with that because white women continue to internalize, normalize, and implicitly perpetuate the myth of black aggressive masculinity.

“Defending white womanhood” has long been a racist ploy to demonize and criminalize black men. Black men have been perceived as inherently violent and overly sexually aggressive for centuries. The stereotype of the brute black man, terrorizing white women and respectable communities, has been used to demonize and criminalize black men since the dawn of this white supremacist nation. The Scottsboro BoysRonald CottonBrian BanksEmmett Till. The list of black men falsely accused or killed for violating the norms of decency against white women is as long as it is tragic, and it is not a problem solely of the past. 

It is also important to remember that some white women were active in anti-lynching activities as well.  For example, during the Great Depression Jessie Daniel Ames, a Texas suffragette, organized a "revolt against chivalry" which linked the anti-lynching campaign with the battle for sexual emancipation.

Jacquelyn Hall writing for the Institute for Souther Studies tells us about the Anti-Lynching Association with which Ames was associated, 
The social analysis of the Anti-Lynching Association began with its perception of the link between racial violence and attitudes toward women. Lynching was encouraged by the conviction that only such extreme sanctions stood between white women and the sexual aggression of black men. This "Southern rape complex," the Association argued, had no basis in fact. On the contrary, white women were often exploited and defamed in order to obscure the economic greed and sexual transgressions of white men. Rape and rumors of rape served as a kind of folk pornography in the Bible Belt. As stories spread, the victim was described in minute and progressively embellished detail: a public fantasy which implied a group participation in the rape of the woman almost as cathartic as the lynching of the alleged attacker. Indeed, the fear of rape, like the fear of lynching, functioned to keep a subordinate group in a state of anxiety and fear; both were ritual enactments of everyday power relationships.

"The women," Ames proudly reported, "traced lynching directly to its roots in white supremacy."

The following is from Racism Review.

White Women and the Defense of Lynching


When I wanted to change my name to disrupt the legacy of white supremacy I’d inherited as a white girl in Texas, I chose Jessie Daniel Ames as my namesake. Revolt_Against_Chivalry_coverI’d read about her in Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s book Revolt Against Chivalry.
Jessie_Daniel_Ames_picJessie Daniel Ames started an organization called The Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL), founded in November, 1930. To interpret this to mean that “not all white women were bad,” is too facile and misses the purpose and context of her organization. She started the ASWPL- quite late, it should be noted, in the ‘reign of terror’ known as lynching– precisely because the prevailing ideology was that lynching was justifiable because it served to protect white women who were believed to be besieged by brutish black men.
Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_posterThis theme – pure, virginal, victimized white women set upon by violent, rapacious, black men – was the central theme in the film Birth of a Nation (1915), screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed it “history writ in lightening.”
The conventional norm among white women in the U.S. at this time was to ignore or dismiss this justification for the extra-legal murder of hundreds of black men each year as a problem that didn’t concern them. Ames, unusual for a white woman (and especially for one from the South), saw lynching as a practice that was centrally about the mythology of white womanhood, and she set about to change it. This installment in the Tuesday series on #troublewithwhitewomen is meant to do much the same, call into question the prevailing norms about white women, and point out the ways that the oppression of others relies not only on racism, but on the privileged structural position of white womanhood.
Historical Background on Lynching
Lynching, scholar Jennie Leitweis-Goff argues in her book Blood at the Root, is central to American culture. The facts about lynching are well known to historians, but most people with a high school diploma in the U.S. don’t know a thing about it, because it’s generally not taught in K-12 curriculum. I’ve written lots more about the definition, geographical patterns and historical context of lynching here.  The peak period of lynching in the U.S. was from 1882-1930 (note: after slavery and well into the 20th century), and estimates are that some 4,742 people have been lynched in the U.S. (through 1968). A few key points to keep in mind: lynching refers to any death outside due legal process and at the hands of a mob (many think it only refers to death by hanging, which is incorrect); white people were lynched, women (mostly black) were lynched, but by 1919 and the notorious “Red Summer” the practice was reserved almost exclusively for black men; lynchings happened in almost every state in the U.S., but predominated in the South, because this is where most black people lived during that time; and, class played a role, as research indicates that the number of lynchings went up as cotton prices went down.  There was also an element of macabre display to many lynchings, as Amy L. Wood notes in Lynching and Spectacle.  All that being said, white women, and a particular way of thinking about white womanhood, were central to the practice of lynching.
White Women’s Complicity in the Practice of Lynching
“White womanhood’ haunts lynching….,” Shawn Michelle Smith writes in her compelling book, Photography on the Color Line, She goes on in the chapter “The Spectacle of Whiteness,” to say this about lynching photography:
“[white womanhood]… is that phantom that is resurrected over and over again as a symbol of white racial purity defining the limits of the white lynch mob. …the figure of a threatened or raped white woman, evoked as the innocent victim of a ‘terrible crime,’ was conjured in attempts to justify lynching as the ‘understandable’ retribution of white fathers, brothers, and lovers. Ida B. Wells herself claimed to have believed this ideology at one time, before her extensive research revealed the cry of rape to be largely myth” (pp.129-30).
Indeed, it was Ida B. Wells who courageously began calling out the mythology of white womanhood promulgated in the service of lynching, a call that often fell on the deaf ears of white women. More often than listen to such claims, white women were actively participating in lynch mobs, as is clear in the many photographs Smith analyzes in her book. White men and women are present in the hundreds and thousands in these images. They have come to witness and to participate in these spectacles of racial violence with family and friends: they are dressed for an occasion; they meet the camera directly, unashamed, even gleeful.
In Smith’s analysis, lynching photographs work as defining images that make whiteness visible to itself. “Lynching photographs consolidate a fluid signifier; a pale crowd enacts and fiercely embodies whiteness” (p.140). And, this whiteness is deeply gendered, sexualized. It is the specific, repeated theme of “black man attacking white woman” that is the lynchpin – if you will – to inciting mob violence, as Dora Apel notes in her book, Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob.
There are as many individual stories about lynchings as there are murdered black men (and women) in the historical record. This account, from Smith, about the lynching of Rubin Stacy, murdered in Fort Lauderdale, Flordia, on July 19,1935, captures the role of white women in inciting mob violence:
“According to the New York Times, as recorded in James Allen’s footnotes, [Rubin] Stacy, a homeless tenant farmer, had approached the home of Marion Jones [a white woman] to ask for food. On seeing Stacy, Jones screamed. Stacy was then arrested, and as he was being transported to a Miami jail by six deputies, a mob of over one hundred masked men seized and murdered him. Finally, Stacy’s corpse was hung in sight of Marion Jones’ home.” (p.130)
A white woman screamed, a black man died. This is the ‘logic’ of white supremacy. White womanhood, that ‘lily of the South,’ had to be protected at all costs was the prevailing ideology. All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her “defense” and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream.
Lynching was a form of racial terrorism intended to subordinate black people following slavery, and in particular, black men. There were lessons in lynching for young white girls, too. Smith goes on in her analysis of the photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy (not posted here), writing:
“It is plausible that the young white girls who regard Stacy’s hanging corpse in the photograph are the children of Marion Jones. As they look at Stacy’s lifeless body, the girls are instructed in the nature of the white patriarchal power that ‘protects’ them, a power that will define their womanhood and confine it to the reproduction of white supremacy. If this is a lesson in white patriarchal protection, it is also a lesson of fatal consequences, of the wrath of white fathers and brothers, uncles and cousins roused by the sight of an African American man near a white woman’s house.” (p.130)
In many ways, it is the ‘fatal consequences’ to which Smith alludes that kept (and continues to keep) white women in line, conforming to and benefitting from white patriarchal protection. White women were not merely victims of patriarchal power; they gained power by supporting white supremacy. And they did so through families.
“Here’s the barbecue we had…” : Women’s Labor in Maintaining White (Supremacist) Familial Ties
White women actively participated in weaving together families knit with the thread of white supremacy. We can see this clearly in the messages written on the back of lynching postcards. Postcards of lynchings were sold in dime stores throughout the U.S. well into the 1950s and 1960s, and they continue to circulate today through sites like eBay. Featuring gruesome images of murdered corpses, mostly black men, on the front, the backs of postcards often carry casual familial exchanges, such as this one:
Indiana Lynching Postcard
handwriting reads: This is where they lynched a negro the other day.
They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. I don’t, do you?)
The notation follows the conventions of postcard greetings, but with a murderous twist. How can we understand these postcards, not only the images, but the inscriptions? Here again is Smith writing:
“The example provided by a Katy Election, one that records the lynching of Jesse Washington in Robinson, Texas on May 16, 1916, proves especially disturbing in this regard. A note scrawled on the back of this particular postcard in large, looping hand reads: ‘This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your sone Joe.’ By sending the postcard, Joe perhaps demonstrates to his mother how he participates in upholding the mythology of pure white womanhood, he ‘defends’ his mother. …. Joe looks directly out at the camera, perhaps anticipating the eyes of his mother….To what degree is the white supremacist’s ‘family album’ supported by such terrible, inverted relics?” (p.122)
(Image source;
handwriting reads: ‘This is the Barbecue we had last night
my picture is to the left with a cross over it your sone [sic] Joe.”
It is women who do the domestic labor of stitching together family relationships, keeping family albums, encouraging their children to keep in touch, send a postcard. And, it is that labor that is put to use in the service of white supremacy in these postcards.
Photographic postcards of lynching victims functioned to solidify the ties for a white community, reinforced through the spectacles of dead black bodies. Sentimental and material familial bonds were reconfirmed through images of white violence, reasserting a larger imagined (white) community.
Resistance to Lynching
People resisted lynching. The list of white women resisting lynching is a short one. The broad pattern of resistance to lynching was that some people, mostly black people, resisted much more than others. Ida B. Wells stands as a towering figure in the struggle against lynching. And, as scholar Koritha Mitchell points out in her book, Living with Lynching, popular lynching plays were mechanisms that African American communities used to survive day-to-day under the threat of actual and photographic mob violence. Professor Kidada Williams continues that legacy of resistance through her Lynching in American Life & Culture course. Acts of truth and reconciliation like this one continue. In Monroe, Georgia people gather every year to re-enact a lynching that took place at Moore’s Ford in 1946.  The patterns set by lynching have created a template in American culture that not only shaped our past but continues to reverberate in the present.
The Defense of White Womanhood Now
In September, 2013 Jonathan Ferrell, a former FAMU student, crashed his car near Charlotte, N.C., crawled out the back window looking for help, and then knocked on the door of the first house he saw. A white woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered. When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police.  Ferrell, who was unarmed, was shot 10 times by a Charlotte police officer.
Jonathan Ferrell

In one account, Ferrell family attorney Chris Chestnut wondered Monday what role race may have played in Saturday’s shooting.”The officer is white, Mr. Ferrell is black. This might be more of a reflection of where we are as a country,” he said. But to my mind, this observation is partial one. The observation not made here is: The woman (Sarah McCartney) who called was white. Mr. Ferrell is black. The officer is white.  It is a reflection of where we are as a country that a white woman calls out, activating a network of white male protection, and a black man is dead.  Marion Jones screams, a mob gathers, Rubin Stacy is dead.
The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates, comes to the defense of the woman who called:
“There’s been some rage directed at the woman who called the police. I think this is wrong. You may believe racism is an actual force in our interactions–I certainly do–but you don’t know whether it was an actual force in this one. It’s important to recognize that this is both a woman and an individual. You might speculate about what she thinks of black people. I might speculate about whether she’d been a victim of sexual assault, or any other kind of violence. That also happens in America. But it would be better to speculate about nothing, since all we actually know is that this was a woman who was home with a young child, opened the door in the middle of the night, and found a dude standing outside.”
I disagree with Coates here. This is not about the individual racism of a particular white woman. It’s about the structural position that we find ourselves in as white women. When Sarah MCartney was frightened to find ‘a dude standing outside,’ she had a powerful resource at her disposal: white womanhood. It lends her credibility, victim status, protection at the hands of police. When she called the police, she did so from that cultural position and mobilized police. A white police officer arrived and interpreted the situation: white woman, in danger; black man, attacking. His protection of Sarah McCartney meant the death of Jonathan Ferrell, unarmed, asking for help.
It’s the template of white womanhood in American culture that’s been shaped by lynching, and it’s deeply ingrained.

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