For much of the country’s history, the belief that white people are inherently and innately superior to all other races drove social and political policy.
But a new book by University of Chicago assistant professor of history Jane Dailey makes the argument that behind that belief was a fearful obsession with interracial sex — an obsession that made integration an untenable prospect.
“White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History” re-examines the post-Civil War Reconstruction era through the 1960s and offers a new perspective on America’s history of white supremacy, which Dailey says was deeply intertwined with a fear of Black sexuality wielded as a political weapon.
“You don’t find a lot of anxiety about interracial sex before the Civil War, in fact you find a lot of white men having sex with Black women, usually forcing themselves on enslaved women. But after the Civil War, when Black men step up as citizens and voters, then you see this new argument about Black bestiality, uncontrollability, hyper-sexuality,” Dailey said.
Central to arguments against mingling between the races was the idea of whiteness — but just who was considered white was unfixed throughout time.
“Laws against interracial marriage go all the way back to 1705 in Virginia, and they’re not undone until 1967, so you’ve got a really long period of time. And laws that define people’s races change a lot over the years,” Dailey said. “Usually they get stricter, meaning that you had to be 50% supposedly white to be considered white, then you might have to be more than that. And it varied by state, you could change your race by crossing state lines. With a law change, your race could be changed for you. So it was very complicated, and it was always done in terms of deciding who is white versus who is not white.”
Below, an excerpt from “White Fright.”
ORIGINS OF WHITE FRIGHT
A NATIVE OF INDIANA, Emily Reed had been living in Alabama only a few months when she faced a momentous decision. She had taken a job as director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division—not the sort of position that captured headlines. That changed when the Montgomery chapter of the prosegregation White Citizens’ Council demanded that she ban a children’s book, Garth Williams’s The Rabbits’ Wedding, from libraries throughout the state. The book—which told the story of the marriage of a little black bunny to a little white bunny—was attacked by segregationists for promoting interracial marriage.
The notion of an outright ban of The Rabbits’ Wedding rubbed Miss Reed the wrong way. In an effort to mollify the enraged Alabamans without banning the book, she ordered it stowed on her department’s reserve shelves. Her decision pleased neither the Citizens’ Council, the Alabama state government, nor the author, who was appalled by the action and insisted that his book had no political significance. “I was completely unaware,” he announced, “that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings.” In a parting shot at Alabama, soon to be identified in the popular mind with fire hoses and snarling police dogs, Williams declared that the book was not written for adults, and that they would not understand it, “because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate.”1
(Undaunted, Reed later included on a state-recommended list of notable books Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Stride Toward Freedom, an account of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which the successful efforts of local African Americans to desegregate the municipal buses sparked a robust civil rights movement as well as savage white resistance.) Reed’s latest provocation inspired the state legislature to conflate genealogy and culture, and demand that the state library chief be a native of the state and a graduate of the University of Alabama or Auburn University.
A stranger to Alabama’s racial politics, Emily Reed was surprised by the reaction to The Rabbits’ Wedding. More astute—or at least more experienced—students of Southern social relations would not have been. The racially segregated and suffocating world of Jim Crow, which lasted from roughly 1890 until the 1960s, was rooted in fears of interracial sex and racial reproduction. When The Rabbits’ Wedding was banned in 1959, marriage across the color line was prohibited in twenty-nine states, including Alabama and Reed’s home state of Indiana. Most of those laws remained on the books until 1967, when the United States Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. Throughout this era, the politics, social relations, and laws of the South reflected and reproduced white fears of interracial sex and marriage.
As early as the abolition of slavery in 1865, advocates for African American equality understood that racially restrictive sex and marriage laws, and the state-enforced regime of racial identification that those laws made possible, lay at the heart of the segregated system they struggled to overthrow. In 1905, the sociologist, journalist, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote the right to “associate with those who wish to associate with me” into the pledge of the Niagara Movement, the predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After the NAACP was formed in 1909, its first national lobbying victory was to convince Congress not to pass a racially restrictive marriage law for the District of Columbia. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States and Communist-affiliated organizations called for complete social equality and the repeal of state antimiscegenation laws. During and immediately after World War II, Christian interracial associations like the Federal Council of Churches joined secular radicals in this call. In the 1950s and 1960s, new organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also embraced this position on sex and marriage even as they focused primarily on issues of education, voting, and housing.
Given the centrality of racially restrictive sex and marriage laws to the creation and maintenance of white supremacy, one would expect their reversal to have been a top priority for advocates of African American equality. But for all the advocacy and lobbying against these laws, there was never a mass movement to overturn them. When the Supreme Court finally ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding Americans to marry across the color line violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the case was argued by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), not the NAACP.
For more than a century, between emancipation and 1967, African American rights were closely bound, both in law and in the white imagination, to the question of interracial sex and marriage. At every stage of the struggle for civil rights, sex played a central role, even when its significance was left unspoken. Overcoming the conflation of sexual and civil rights was a project of decades and arguably the greatest challenge champions of Black equality faced.
INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE WAS regulated in America for more than three hundred years. In the beginning, in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia, freeborn English men and women were permitted to marry Africans and the indigenous people Europeans called Indians. But laws governing interracial sex and marriage emerged only a few years after the first contact between Africans and Europeans in America and played an essential role in establishing stable categories of Blackness and whiteness, and therefore stable categories of slave and free.
The sexual activity of white men with Black women, mainly between masters and slaves, produced most of the mixed-race population in the South. The majority of these encounters were almost certainly coerced, either through force or through more subtle invocations of the vast disparity of power between the partners. The children born of such unions were enslaved, as their legal status followed that of their mother. As time went on, liaisons between white women and colored men, tolerated as recently as the seventeenth century, presented a social dilemma insofar as the mixed-race children of white women were free, and undermined efforts to link freedom and racial identity.
In an attempt to solder status to race once and for all, Southern states passed new laws in the eighteenth century that prohibited marriages between whites and Blacks and also punished people who engaged in interracial adultery. The first legal ban on interracial marriage was a 1705 Virginia act, which also defined who was nonwhite.
These laws did not mean that white and Black Americans stopped having sex with each other. Although white men crossed the racial boundary in search of sex more often than white women did, even white women’s interracial sexual liaisons went uncensored more than might be expected. Sex between Black men and white women seems to have been tolerated unless and until such unions produced mixed-race children. Dorothea Bourne, for example, could probably have indefinitely sustained her long-standing adulterous affair with a neighbor’s slave had she not borne his child. The arrival of a suspiciously dark baby cast Dorothea’s much older husband, Lewis, in the public role of cuckold, and he filed for divorce in 1824.
Prosecutions under the anti-intermarriage statutes often turned on complex questions of racial identity. A court could rule that a marriage was illegal only once the racial identities of the spouses could be established at law. Miscegenation as transgression depended on the establishment of clear legal boundaries to transgress. Yet miscegenation as historical fact undercut those very boundaries. Because miscegenation threatened to undermine any system of straightforward racial classification, it became a problem for the Southern social and labor system, which depended more and more on clear distinctions between white and nonwhite.
Mixed-race families nonetheless flourished without much incident from the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth, though public opinion was by then hardening against interracial sex and marriage.2 Antebellum state legislatures wrote laws defining racial categories for the purpose of marriage, outlining people’s marital possibilities according to the various numerical degrees of Blackness. Depending on the state and the decade, people who were more than half Black, one-fourth Black, one-eighth Black, one-sixteenth Black, or even one-thirty-second Black could not marry anyone defined as white under the law. In 1850, the US Census introduced a new racial category of “mulatto” and concluded that 11 percent of the nation’s African Americans were mixed race.3 Most of this population was enslaved, but an unknown number of mixed-race Americans lived as free men and women, many of them “passing” across a color barrier that was more akin to a barbed-wire fence than a wall.4
Arguments about interracial sex and marriage became highly politicized in the late 1850s, following the birth of the Republican Party in 1856. In the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign, Republican Abraham Lincoln was confronted by Democrats hoisting a banner depicting a Black man, a white woman, and an interracial child. Democrat Stephen A. Douglas accused Lincoln of supporting Black-white “social equality,” a charge Lincoln rebutted, proclaiming that he did not favor “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Lincoln emphatically denied any support of interracial marriage, and he pledged to uphold Illinois’s law forbidding interracial sex and marriage. Six years later, in the 1864 presidential election, Democrats portrayed President Lincoln and other Republicans as champions of “miscegenation,” a term a pair of Democratic political operatives coined to describe the amalgamation of the races through sex across the color line.
This fixation on interracial sex was a new development. Before the Civil War, white slaveholders who reveled in their sexual domination of slave women had not concerned themselves with maintaining white “racial purity.” Nor did they worry about Black men, slave or free, raping white women. They were more concerned, in fact, with the possibility that white women might desire and pursue slave men, as Dorothea Bourne did.5 As the historian Eugene Genovese wrote more than forty years ago, the “titillating and violence-provoking theory of the superpotency of that black superpenis, while whispered about for several centuries, did not become an obsession in the South until after emancipation.”6 White anxiety about African American sexual prowess and Black men’s desirability to white women emerged alongside the enfranchisement of African American men during Reconstruction.
Starting with the first congressional debates over the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, opponents of African American equality began to link sexual and political rights, arguing that emancipation and, especially, the enfranchisement of Black men would inevitably lead to interracial sex, marriage, and children. As one Southerner laid it out, “Do away with the social and political distinctions now existing, and you immediately turn all the blacks and mulattoes into citizens, co-governors, and acquaintances: and acquaintances… are the raw material from which are manufactured friends, husbands, and wives. The man whom you associate with is next invited to your house, and the man whom you invited to your house is the possible husband of your daughter, whether he be black or white.” This fixation on interracial sex—or, in the language of the postemancipation South, miscegenation and amalgamation—was not only an individual reality but became a powerful political disposition crafted in opposition to African American liberty and political power after the Civil War.
Champions of Black voting (especially if Black men voted Republican) insisted that clear lines could be drawn between political and what became known as “social” rights. “It is fright that makes you mistake a ballot for a billet-doux” (love letter), Republican William “Pig Iron” Kelley teased the Democrats in 1868. “It cannot be possible that any man of common sense can bring himself to believe that marriages between any persons, much less between white and colored people, will take place because a colored man is allowed to drop a little bit of paper into a box.”
But many white men believed exactly this, and after emancipation in 1865, “white supremacy” acquired both new meaning and, for white Southerners, new urgency. As practiced by those dedicated to the proposition, “white supremacy” was both a social argument and a political program designed to reestablish white men’s social and political dominance after the war and Reconstruction. Forged out of the catastrophic Confederate loss, the new, supposedly “solid” white-supremacist South of the turn of the twentieth century was not the immediate outcome of the war but the product of forty years of violence, voting fraud, and mass disenfranchisement.
What became known as the Jim Crow South, after a minstrel character and dance, was founded on two interrelated lies: on the supposed political incapacity and unworthiness of African American men, and on their inborn tendency to sexual predation and fixation on white women. This false narrative of African American civic incompetence and sexual rapaciousness arose alongside Black electoral success and participation in governance.
These myths did not preempt Black empowerment. White Southern men had already experienced the effectiveness of African American participation in governance after emancipation by the time these stories began to spread. During Reconstruction, Black men held political office in every state of the former Confederacy. Twenty-two African Americans were elected to Congress between 1870 and 1900, including two US senators, both from Mississippi. More than one hundred Black men won election or appointment to posts with jurisdiction over entire states, and almost eight hundred served in state legislatures. A much larger number held public office at the local level.7 The argument that Black men were inherently unfit to participate in democratic rule came in response to their electoral potency, not as an effort to prevent it.
Across the South, but especially in the Upper South, freed Blacks and Republican or dissident Democratic whites combined, usually in support of fiscal policies that would deliver public services for everyone, such as schools and hospitals. These interracial coalition parties did surprisingly well in a political region where partisan divides were expected to parallel the color line, and they contributed to the volatility of late nineteenth-century Southern politics. The success of each of these factions depended on the ballots of African Americans, who voted in most places throughout the late nineteenth century.
Black-white political fusion galvanized elite white Southerners, whose power was threatened by this development, to use every weapon at their disposal to end the danger of biracial opposition parties. Building on grids of kinship and political patronage, and fired up by the experience of military defeat, white men across the South reacted to the political mobilization of Black men with unprecedented violence. Functioning effectively as the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, the Ku Klux Klan and other allied groups organized in the late 1860s and early 1870s to destroy the political infrastructure of Black life. Reconstruction was experienced as an organized brawl in many states as the Democrats captured control of state governments through a combination of intimidation, electoral fraud, and violence, including indiscriminate massacres of Black men, women, and children, and political assassination. White Republicans who allied with Black men were also targets. In one incident in Louisiana in 1876, armed white supremacists executed six white Republican officeholders. That same year in Mississippi, White League units murdered some three hundred African Americans.8
Both elements of white Democrats’ justification for Jim Crow—Black incompetence and interracial sexual designs—were necessary components of their region-wide campaign to enhance their own power at the expense of all others. By the dawn of the twentieth century, white supremacists had stripped Black men, and a majority of Southern white men as well, of political power, justifying their actions through a new political discourse about racial purity and sexual danger. African Americans, particularly Black men, were left in the position of fighting a powerful and perilous new representation of themselves.