Made Johnson, and Interracial Sex America’s Taboo
January 18, 2005
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
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 Reverend 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
Roddenberg soon had much of America whistling Dixie.
Within weeks there were twenty-one 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
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.
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