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Feds Made Interracial Sex America's Taboo

Black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, paid a heavy price for defying interracial sex and marriage laws.
 
 
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In his PBS documentary Unforgiveable Blackness , on black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, filmmaker Ken Burns masterfully captures the vitriol that whites (and some blacks) showered on Johnson for thumbing his nose at America's rabid phobia over sex between black men and white women. Johnson paid a heavy price for that defiance. He was prosecuted, forced into self-imposed, and eventually imprisoned.

Burns and other notables have banded together and publicly demanded that President Bush posthumously pardon Johnson. But Burns skirted past the real story of the federal government's deep role in making sex and marriage between black men and white women America's taboo, and why the taboo has been nearly impossible to shed even today. The Supreme Court intruded into the bedrooms of America in 1883 when it upheld an Alabama law that made it a felony for black men and white women to have sex. The Court brushed aside objections that the law violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment since blacks and whites (women that is) were supposedly prosecuted equally. This bizarre logic held. For the next century, interracial sex and marriage in America would not be a crime in the South, but a national crime. The fear of black men making love to white women would be the X factor that instantly stirred latent racial hatreds and touched off mob violence.

Johnson, as Burns meticulously details, found that out the hard way. In November 1912, the federal government accused him of violating the Mann Act for traveling across state lines with his white mistress. The law, passed in 1910 and formally known as the White Slave Traffic Act, was the brainchild of the prudish and taciturn Republican congressman, James Robert Mann.

It was partly a product of the pseudo-moral hypocrisy of post-Victorian America, and partly a reaction to public fear that hordes of foreign women were being smuggled into America for prostitution. Ninety-eight percent of the convictions under the Mann Act in the first two years were for the operation of brothels, dens, and organized sex rings with white women as prostitutes or merely consorting participants.

The law was not explicitly aimed at blacks or Johnson. Attorney General George Wickersham did not intend to use it for political harassment. That is until Johnson blew off America's moral pretensions and publicly flaunted his white women. The public and Wickersham were happy to make him an exception, and thereby, an example. "Bad Nigger" Johnson compounded the "crime" when he made Lucille Cameron, a white teenager, his second wife. Blacks were traumatized. The headline in the black weekly, The Philadelphia Tribune , screamed in bold headlines, "JACK JOHNSON DANGEROUSLY ILL, VICTIM OF WHITE FEVER." The Los Angeles Times chimed in bold headlines "HOW JACK JOHNSON TORURED HIS WHITE WIFE, THE STORY OF A BEAST." The New York Times lectured "that there will be no sympathy for his venture in miscegenation." The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., father of Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., vainly pled with Americans not to hold black men responsible for "the actions of a single member." It did.

At the Annual Governors Conference in December 1912, the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Connecticut were in hot competition to be the first on record to support bills to outlaw interracial marriage. A week later Georgia Democrat Seaborn A. Roddenberg turned up the heat. He introduced a congressional amendment to impose a federal ban on interracial marriages stating: "Interracial marriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of the pure American spirit." Roddenberg soon had much of America whistling Dixie. Within weeks there were 21 similar bills pending in Congress. In racially polarized pre-World War I America, thousands of black waiters, porters, barbers, and laborers were fired in retaliation for Johnson's sexual transgressions.

Legislators in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan didn't wait for their governors to take action. They rapidly passed laws that outlawed interracial marriage. Some were worried that the mob hysteria could get out of hand and touch off a destructive race war nationally. The New York Times and a scattering of other Northern newspapers urged moderation, but they stopped far short of demanding that the federal government back off from prosecuting Johnson.

The few stray editorials published in Northern papers condemning violence meant little in the South. White Southerners relied on the standard method: intimidation and terror. State laws against interracial marriage became a harsh tool of racial repression and a thinly disguised cover for sexual revenge against black men. While the laws against interracial marriage have long since been dumped in the legal trash bin, and society is far more tolerant today than a few years back toward black-white sex, polls still show that there is a wide body of public opinion that opposes interracial marriage. But don't blame Johnson for that blame the feds. And that's unforgivable.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).