Outside, on an uncharacteristically cold Georgia night, stood a stubborn knot of people holding flickering candles, singing and demanding justice. Civil Rights veteran Reverend Joseph Lowry led the chorus. We Shall Overcome. This is not taking place in 1964, but 2004 and in the ongoing plotline of American history, racial injustice has become our most enduring cliché. The specific injustice at hand was the incarceration of Marcus Dixon, an 18-year-old honor student, football star and college scholarship recipient who is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence. His crime: consensual sex with a class mate two years and some months his junior. The young woman is white.
On one level, the case highlights universal problems with inflexible automatic sentencing laws that are the current political vogue. On another level, however, this is a race-specific concern. It would be difficult to imagine this happening had both young people been of the same racial classification. Only a specific brand of American racial naiveté -- the same kind that denied for centuries that Jefferson was capable of having sex with Sally Hemings -- would dismiss the racial elements at play here. Ultimately, the Marcus Dixon case brings to light more racial dynamics than a James Baldwin play: a young black boy is adopted by a white family in the American South; he does well in school, scores a 1200 on the SAT and is pursued by Vanderbilt University. In a dizzying sequence of events, he is arrested after having sex with a classmate and although he is acquitted on all other charges, he is found guilty of aggravated child molestation -- a crime that carries an automatic ten-year sentence in the state of Georgia.
His case, which is under review by the Georgia Supreme Court, would be unbelievable were it not part of a legacy of interracial anxiety that is literally older than this country itself. As a nation, the US invested enormous social and legal resources in what can only be called sexual segregation.
The specter of black men having sex with white women has been used to justify everything from lynching to segregation and is rooted in an aged specious concern with alleged racial purity. In slaveholding societies like Santo Domingo (later Haiti), a complex caste system for persons of biracial -- or triracial -- lineage evolved and South American states, particularly Brazil, developed Byzantine codes for racial classification. In the United States, however, the general dogma held that if one is black at all, he or she is all black. The idea was that blackness is a toxin, a single drop of which ruins an otherwise useful white person.
In the early colonial era, it was not uncommon for black and white indentured servants to intermarry, though there appeared to be some social ambivalence about these unions. In 1630, a Virginia settler named Hugh Davis was whipped "before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a Negro." At the same time, the colony had no specific prohibitions against interracial unions. By 1662, however, the colony had mandated that all children of biracial parentage were to be afforded the status of the mother -- meaning that white men would not be compelled to support offspring born to slave women and simultaneously giving white women specific reason not to reproduce with black men. By the end of the century, marriages across color lines brought mandatory expulsion from the colony.
In the early republic, however, sexual access to black women had become a cherished privilege of slaveholding white males. It was understood that concerns with racial purity were not to interfere with white men's sexual liberty. Harriet Jacobs, who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813, reported in her autobiography that she was pursued relentlessly by a slaveholder 40 years her senior.
He told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I as nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his.In Mississippi, this principle was enshrined in law by the case of Celia, a slave woman who had been raped by a white slaveholder from age 15, giving birth to two children as a result of the assaults. After becoming pregnant for the third time and begging the slaveholder's daughter to intervene on her behalf, she defended herself by bludgeoning the rapist with a heavy block of wood and then burned his body. At trial, she was convicted of murder in a ruling that noted that a slave had no legal grounds to deny a slaveholder access to her body as she was the slaveholder's property. She was sentenced to hang after giving birth (the child was stillborn.)
At the same time, there was a parallel evolution. Arguments against abolition during this era often cited the alleged Negro menace that would plague white women were blacks allowed to go free. After emancipation, as the South struggled to reinscribe its racial hierarchies, the defense of white womanhood became a rallying cry. Between 1880 and 1920 well over 3,500 African Americans were lynched -- a rate of almost two per week for 40 years. The crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells established that the rape of white women was far from the primary cause of lynching -- it was cited in fewer than 20% of the cases, and many of those, she maintained, had been instances of consensual sexual activity. Still, the compelling point is that black male-white female sex was a powerful rationale for organized murder in America.
The concern with interracial sex took twisted routes in black America as well. Frederick Douglass was criticized by black and white peers alike for his decision to marry a white abolitionist after his first wife -- an ex-slave -- died. In the midst of his conflict with W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington insinuated that board meetings were not the only kinds of interracial gatherings that the organization sanctioned. Washington, ironically, was to find that this was a double-edged sword, when he was attacked in New York in 1911 for allegedly making sexual overtures to a white woman in a red light district.
In the 1930s, black anticommunists charged that the Communist Party used interracial sex to lure black men into its ranks. (The intermarriage of black men and white women within the Party was to eventually cause significant tensions as more black women joined the Communist Party.) Martin Luther King, confronted by the arguments that integration would necessarily lead to interracial marriage famously pointed out that black men wanted to "be accepted as their brothers -- not their brothers-in-law." Though King was likely being politic, his point underscores a real concern: opposing the bigotry surrounding interracial sex was not the same as campaigning for it -- in the same way that some opponents of educational segregation simultaneously supported historically black colleges.
In a very real way, Marcus Dixon has been victimized by an outmoded history. In 1966, the case of Loving v. Virginia abolished the racially restrictive laws governing marriage. The number of interracial unions between blacks and whites has steadily increased in recent years. Blair Underwood can make an appearance as a legitimate love interest on Sex and the City. And a young scholar-athlete with a promising future can be sentenced to a decade in prison for consensual sex. The case is a relic of history that nonetheless proves that in 2004, some of us have still not caught up to the past.
For more information on the Marcus Dixon case, see www.act4justice.com.
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College and editor of 'The Essential Harold Cruse.' He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at www.jelanicobb.com.