A Second Open Letter to Southern White Women

Black and white side profile of white woman holding a pen or cigarette in her hand, with bobbed haircut

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 4, "Generations: Women in the South." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains references to sexual assault. 

In 1972, I wrote an "open letter" to Southern white women on racism and rape. It appeared in the Southern Patriot and as a pamphlet used in the effort to free Thomas Wansley from a Virginia prison. 

Wansley, black, then 26, was arrested at age 16 in Lynchburg, Va., and charged with raping a white woman. I am convinced that he was innocent. Lynchburg was in turmoil, in response to student sit-ins challenging segregation in public places. A series of rapes was reported, a massive manhunt ensued in the black community, hysteria fired by a racist newspaper mounted in the white. Wansley became the culprit; he could have been any young black. The prosecution's witness could not identify him, but he was sentenced to death. 

Protests during the '60s won a new trial, but he was convicted again and given life. The early 1970s brought new attempts to free him. 

I saw the case as part of a horrifying pattern that pervades Southern history — rape, a crime if the victim is white and the alleged attacker black, not a crime if the victim is black (no matter who the attacker), often ignored if both parties are white. An old system that has terrorized the black community, confused the white, kept people divided, degraded white women as it oppressed black men and women. 

I called on white women, for their own liberation, to refuse any longer to be used, to act in the tradition of Jessie Daniel Ames and the white women who fought in an earlier period to end lynching, and to join our black sisters in a fight to free Wansley. 

The campaign to renew interest in Wansley ran squarely into the struggle of women to make society aware of the crime of rape. Some white women activists did join the effort for Wansley, but many did not. Some couldn't bear the thought of defending any man accused of rape. 

I argued that as women fought against rape they must never forget the racist way the charge of rape can be used. Otherwise, I feared, white women seeking liberation might find themselves pitted against black people striving for freedom, two groups that should be allies. Furthermore, I feared, white women might find themselves objectively on the side of the most reactionary social forces, used once again. 

Four years have passed, and I think this is precisely what has happened. I write this second letter to Southern white women because I think we have a particular responsibility to help reverse this trend. 


The Resurgence of Racism 

The racist use of the rape charge, contrary to some popular opinion, is not past history; men are still being arrested for rape not because there is any evidence that they are guilty, but because they are black. It happens in situations (1) where there was no rape (and as women we must be honest enough to admit that this can happen), or (2) where there was a rape and police set out to find a black man, any black man. And in a racist society, to many whites, all blacks look alike. 

An upsurge in the racist use of the rape charge is always triggered by historic conditions. After Reconstruction in the South, when lynching reached its height, the charge of rape was used to terrorize the black community, divide interracial Populist coalitions, and keep power in the hands of a few. A few white men. White women were always the pawns. 

Similarly, I think the last decade in this country has seen not a decline of racism but its resurgence. During the civil-rights movement in the early '60s, racism was on the defensive. But in the late 1960s, a massive counter-attack began. This took many forms: the framing and jailing of black organizers, and sometimes their murder; covert efforts to destroy civil-rights organizations; co-optation of movement energies with temporary federal programs; a new ideological onslaught of theories of racial superiority; and a reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan. 

In this setting, increased accusations of rape against black men were inevitable. Wansley is still in prison, almost forgotten. James Carrington, another Virginia black, charged with rape for what was essentially a date with a white woman, remains in prison for 75 years. Johnny Ross in New Orleans, Ronnie Long in North Carolina, Willie Burnett in Kentucky, Christopher Moore in Mississippi . . . the list is growing. 

Meanwhile, the women's movement has successfully focused public attention on the crime of rape. Yet this campaign has also created an atmosphere in which it becomes harder — and sometimes impossible — to struggle against the racist use of the rape charge, an atmosphere in which even to use that phrase puts one in the position of condoning rape. 

A recent book highlights the dilemma: Against Our Will, Men, Women and Rape, by Susan Brownmiller (Simon & Schuster hardcover, 1975, Bantam paperback, 1976). Brownmiller's book has been widely acclaimed and it performs a unique service. It documents the unwritten history of rape; it exposes the function of rape laws as a protection of men's property rights, not women's safety; and it challenges ancient and current notions of men's inherent right to women's bodies. 

Unfortunately, the book also hands a potent weapon to those who would use racism to divide us. I have heard Brownmiller speak. I don't think she is any more racist than the rest of us who grew up white in a racist society. She deals with the rape of black women and points out that they have been even more victimized than white women. I don't think she intended her book to become a weapon for racism. But objectively it serves that function; we must analyze why. 


The Enemy Forgotten 

Southern white women have the potential to help build a women's movement that is not at odds with the black liberation struggle because historically we've had to deal with the issue of racism before we could understand anything else. 

In my 1972 letter, I described my own experience of politicization. As a young newspaper woman in the '40s, I saw a black man get 20 years in prison in a Birmingham courtroom after a white woman testified that he looked at her in an "insulting" way (the charge was assault with intent to ravish). I was horrified not only by what was being done to that black man but also by what was happening to the woman. For that moment of being a "protected" woman, she would pay with a lifetime of poverty and subservience to the husband, the father, the brother, the judge who made her "queen for a day" in the courtroom. 

Only later did I recognize the similarity of my own position. When I hesitantly complained to the prosecutor about what had happened, he told me not to worry my head and began giving me a new "scoop" for my newspaper. I subsided, effectively converted into one more brainless woman, even my success as a reporter dependent on his "protection." 

My moment of freedom came in 1951 when I joined a delegation of white women to Jackson, Miss., to protest the killing of Willie McGee — a black man framed on a rape charge in Laurel, Miss. We were arrested for trying to see the governor, and when one policeman learned I was from Alabama, he threatened to kill me. "You are not fit to be a Southern woman," he shouted. I looked at him and replied, "No, I'm not your kind of Southern woman." Suddenly I knew I was on the "other side." The other side not just from that cop but from all the rulers of the South who treated black people like children and put white women on pedestals and turned on both in fury when they asserted their humanity. For me, it was a point of no return. 

My personal story is not atypical. Most white Southerners who come to understand the great social issues of our world do so through that long, painful passageway of the struggle with racism. In a society that built its economy, its culture, its very existence on racism, it can be no other way. 

Thus I was interested to read that Brownmiller too, although growing up in the North, experienced her "first stirrings of social conscience" when she read of "certain cases, now legend, in which black men had been put to death for coming too close to white women." Yet, to my amazement, she views the Willie McGee case, which provided my road to freedom, as just another example of the maledominated left using a rape case as an organizing tool for its own benefit. In her view, the defense of McGee, of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in 1931, and of the Martinsville Seven in Virginia in 1951 were battles imposed on the South by outside radicals, in contrast to the more "authentic" and "pragmatic" civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. 

Even more startling is her treatment of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black from Chicago who was murdered and thrown in to the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi because he whistled at a white woman. Brownmiller deplores the murder; but what concerns her most is the way the incident illustrates the power struggle between white and black men over the bodies of women. Till's whistle, she says, was no innocent gesture but a reminder to white Carolyn Bryant that he "had in mind to possess her." Such an emphasis reflects a fatal flaw running through Brownmiller's book: a recurring tendency to ignore racism as a primary force in this country. However oppressed Carolyn Bryant was as a woman, she was white and therefore wielded more power than Emmett Till — as demonstrated by his body in the river and her approving presence in the courtroom where her husband, who admitted the crime, was acquitted. 

Racism is not some abstract concept invented by the left for its own gain. It does exist. The "rape cases" inspired action and became famous not because they were unusual but because they exemplified the terrorism which upheld political and economic power relationships in the South. Every black person knew that a member of his or her own family could have been a "Scottsboro Boy” or a Martinsville defendant. At any moment, a false rape charge could be used to divide white against black and destroy efforts at fundamental economic change. The McGee case, for example, crippled one of the strongest unions in predominantly anti-union Mississippi, the woodworkers' local at Laurel's huge Masonite plant. 

In my experience, the left of that period — the Communist Party and the organizations it influenced — did not manipulate these cases. Nor did it, as Brownmiller argues, "destroy the credibility of the complaining witness by smearing her as mentally unbalanced, or as sexually frustrated, or as an oversexed, promiscuous whore." The left consistently said, as Brownmiller acknowledges by quoting leaflets from the period, that responsibility lay with an exploitative economic system and that white women, as well as blacks, were its victims. Instead of manipulating people, the left's defense efforts offered black and white women a way to fight back together. 

For me, as a white Southern woman, this social analysis was sensible and liberating. It no longer left me individually guilty for the racism that was destroying us all. Individual guilt is a dead end; it offered no possibility for collective action. The social analysis, however, meant that if I repudiated my complicity in racism, I could be free. 

For black Southerners, these defense efforts were initial openings to fighting back. For example, Rosa Parks, who later sparked a movement by refusing to go to the back of a Montgomery bus, made her first clandestine contact with the civil rights movement when she watched her husband and his friends enter their home, pull the shades, and count money they had secretly collected for the Scottsboro defense. 

The struggle against terror, the search for the symbolic dignity of sitting anywhere on a bus or in a restaurant, the determination to exercise the power of the voting booth — these are all part of the same battle for life and liberty. It might be comfortable for those of us who are white to dismiss the racial implications of the rape issue; but they will not go away. We only need listen, as I did, to the black woman who asked Brownmiller, "What -you are saying may help me protect myself, but how can I protect my son?" A movement that has no answer to that question ignores the fact that in a society anchored by racism, there can be no liberation for anyone until the race issue is met head on. 

Susan Brownmiller and many feminists of her generation were awakened to social issues through the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. I think they still acknowledge the debt they owe to their roots in that struggle. But their revulsion against male domination of that movement led them out of civil rights and into the leadership of a new feminist insurgency. 

Male attitudes were atrocious in that period, much worse, I think, than the situation in the left of the '30s and '40s. Many women of my generation and older found in the left a place where women were looked upon as autonomous human beings. The people who shaped the civil-rights struggles of the '60s, both men and women, grew up in the reactionary back-to-the-kitchen period of the 1950s, and they took that ideology with them into the movement. Women were right to rebel; and I feel now that some of us who continued to concentrate on fighting racism were not sensitive enough to the issues they were raising. 

But I also think that they were wrong to turn away from other problems and to focus only on sexism. I believe that all issues are "women's issues," including war and peace, economics, and racism. To ignore the interrelationships of these can lead to Brownmiller's unfortunate conclusion that women are always on the side of righteousness and that the central theme in human history is man's drive to subjugate women with the weapon of rape.

 Rape is increasing in this country, as is all violent crime. The volume of rapes increased 62 percent over the five year period from 1967 to 1973, with black women almost twice as likely to be raped as white women. Statistically, one of every 10 black males now in adolescence can expect to die by violence before the age of 30. But we cannot ignore the fact that this rise in personal violence is restricted to the capitalist world. I'm not suggesting that socialism will automatically eliminate violent crime — or sexism, racism or any other evil. But travelers who go anywhere in the socialist world return impressed that people walk the streets at night without fear. We have to think about that. 

Tearing rape from its social context can lead to proposing "law and order" solutions to a very complex problem. Brownmiller, for example, recommends legal reforms to facilitate the conviction of rapists. But such proposals ignore the nature of a court system which discriminates against the black and the poor and a prison system which does not control crime but increases it. Such solutions put us objectively in alliance with the forces of repression. 

I'm not suggesting that the women's movement halt its fight against rape. But we must face the hard fact that in our society there just may be no possibility of security for anyone — women or men — and that the only true answer is basic change in the society itself. We must try to shape all struggles in a way that does not feed the fires of racism. A first step might be for white women to fight as hard for victims of the racist use of the rape charge as they fight against rape. Black women and white women supported Joan Little when she defended herself against rape in a North Carolina jail. But many white women were not there when it came time to defend Delbert Tibbs on death row in Florida, although there is no evidence that he was within 150 miles of his alleged crime. 

We live in a society that is fast decaying. As it moves into deeper collapse, those who own and run our country will search for sections of the population that will support police state measures in the interest of "order" and an elusive security. That's why it frightens me when I hear women calling for "law and order" solutions to rape. White women were used 100 years ago by the few who managed to fasten a kind of fascism on the South. I don't want to see us used again.