The Southern Rape and Lynching Complex: The Subordination of Southern Women Through a Mechanism of White Supremacy
Phillips examines rape and lynching in Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina from 1865 to 1945. Although both men and women blacks and whites were victims of lynching, most of those killed were black men; the justification typically proffered was that the victim had raped a white woman. Phillips argues that although these murders are widely acknowledged to be tools of racial segregation, their role in preserving the pre-war South's ideal of passive womanhood is often ignored. The paper investigates the disparate treatment of black and white accused rapists, and between those accused of raping white women and black women. Typically, only black men accused of raping white women became lynching victims.
The paper begins with a survey of pre-war Southern culture, discussing the region's class divisions. Social strata was based on wealth, leisure, race, and gender. Middle and upper class white men dominated public life, but even the poorest white was believed superior to every black. Strict gender roles, in which men were considered virile protectors, left women as submissive and pure. Women, children, and slaves were all viewed as dependent on white male patriarchs. Phillips also details how this ideal of womanhood became intertwined with concepts of the South itself. To attack a white woman was to attack the South. Similarly, any white woman who became involved with a black man was thought to sully the South's pure lineage.
This latter concern partly explains the rise of lynching after the war, when newly free black men became rivals--in romance, politics, and economics--to whites. Lynching was a response designed to remind blacks of their "proper" place, to discourage interracial relationships, and to reassert dwindling white male power. It also played on, and reinforced, the stereotype that black men were sexual predators lying in wait for white women. Rumors of black rapists were so prevalent they have been described as the "folk pornography of the Bible Belt," and fear of rape was widespread. Phillips also delves into the post-war South's frontier mentality, explaining how the war's devastation of social and political organizations led to a frontier-like tendency to bypass legal institutions in exacting vengeance. She attributes the rise in lynching to a volatile mixture of shattered institutions, widespread rumors of rape, claims of racial equality by freed slaves, and the outsized virility of ideal Southern manhood.
Despite the decline in institutions, Phillips emphasizes that a façade of law was left intact as a force to assist in pursuing post war Southern cultural goals. The death penalty was typically applied to black men found guilty of being rapists, but lower standards of proof and severe sentencing of blacks accused of raping white women lead Phillips to describe judicial activity as "legal lynching." This cuts against claims that vigilante lynching was designed to overcome deficiencies in the judicial system. Rather it suggests that the courts, like lynching, were used to instill fear both in the black community and white women. This proposition is bolstered by the fact that lynch mobs wielded a blunt brand of justice, often killing those related to the accused or only weakly identified.
Phillips also considers the treatment of white accused rapists. The comparably small percentage of white lynching victims who were accused rapists points to the racial motivations behind lynching as a penalty for alleged sexual conduct. White lynch victims were typically accused murderers. Similarly, courts' different treatment of white accused rapists indicates that white society's real concern was miscegenation, not protecting women from rape. When a white woman accused a black man of rape he was presumed guilty; when she accused a white man, the burden was on her to prove she had physically resisted and that she had a reputation for chastity.
Phillips draws a final distinction by considering legal and extra-legal responses to the rape of black women. Prior to the war, rape of black women had played an essential role in maintaining slavery: emasculating black men, empowering white men, and assuring a constant supply of slave children. Post-war, little attention was paid to black rape victims, a fact Phillips attributes to the symbolism of the time. White women were seen as pure ice goddesses, black women were viewed as symbolic of wanton sexual desire. It was widely believed that black women were innately promiscuous; a belief used by white men since slavery to excuse their infidelities. The refusal to respect a black woman's honor and personhood, therefore, augured against the raising of lynch mobs against their accused rapists. The only exception to this, albeit a rare one, was the occasional lynching of accused black rapists by black or integrated lynch mobs; Phillips notes no black lynching of white rapists.
Frequent rape in the slave quarters, and continuing post-war rape of black women by whites, also served to drive a resentful wedge between the women of each race. At a time when women were agitating for political power, this divide played a powerful role in diluting the voice of Southern women. Thus, as the threat of lynching discouraged any intimacy or even friendship between white women and black men--a discouragement only sharpened by the acute anxiety caused by fear of rape--the realities of rape served to separate white women from black women. The upshot was to keep white women, those symbols of all that was pure and honorable in the South, segregated and "pure," untouched by black society and dependent on white males.
The practice of white men blackening their faces and raping white women also points to the racial factors at work. White supremacists were concerned less with protecting women from rape than with instilling in them a fear of blacks and a feeling of helpless dependence on white men. The less severe treatment of accused white rapists of white women also indicates the racial motivations behind the rape and lynching complex.
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