Stormy Protests on Sex Crimes: Local Debates about Race and Rape in Postwar Chicagoland

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1945 peacetime celebrations had barely concluded when the Chicago Daily Tribune's front page warned that Chicago police were cooperating with officers from Evanston - a suburb adjacent to the city's north side - to help them curb a "wave of sex and other crimes against women." White residents living in and near Evanston read in horror about "an army air hero's mother" who was assaulted by "an unidentified Negro."12 Chicago's African-American residents read a different version of these events when the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's leading black newspapers, reported that "Evanston's Crime Wave Fizzles," and that the city should "blame police chief for rape hysteria."3

The strong words in area newspapers suggest that in the years following World War II, Chicagoland residents directly confronted the problematic relationship between sexual violence and racial tensions. Racial assumptions about sex crimes had a long history that influenced the coverage of the crimes committed in Evanston in August and September 1945. Some suburban residents expressed familiar ideas about race and rape and proposed violent, vigilante solutions to what many felt was a community crisis. Others disputed racial stereotypes in the face of challenges from the city to which they resisted annexation. Local newspapers and Evanston City Council meetings provided public forums where residents could voice their concerns and opinions about race, social relations, crime, and violence. Public debates about government, police competence (or the lack thereof), and crises of identity demonstrate that suburban residents' anxieties were not rooted in fears of sexual violence exclusively, but also reflected shifting attitudes about urban/suburban population growth and the dangers of perpetuating racial stereotypes during a time of profound social change. This article analyzes the print media's role in both reflecting and shaping public knowledge about the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence in the Chicago area following World War II. Articles in the suburban press published weeks after the crimes had occurred continued to express citizens' concerns, not about the possibility of interracial sex crimes, but about the negative image of Evanston and race relations among its citizens. Public discussions about sexual violence thus served as a way for suburban residents to talk about other issues - including racism, police bias, and local authority - while Evanston's crimes captured newspaper headlines in 1945.

Arguments about the ways in which discourses of sexual violence masked other social concerns have appeared throughout American history, at different times and in different ways. Historian Sharon Block's analysis of Rape and Sexual Power in Early America suggests that during the revolutionary era, "rape-related stories pitted upstanding American male citizenry against corrupt British rule and made rape a powerful rallying cry for a new American nation."4 Recognizing a military tactic of punishing the enemy by raping his women, American revolutionaries compared narratives of British rapes - real or imagined - with a broader "rape" of the colonies by the merciless Crown in an effort to solicit support for their cause. In the late nineteenth century, newspaper editor Ida B. Wells suggested that false accusations of interracial rape perpetrated by African-American men mistakenly justified the actions of white lynch mobs. Wells argued that white Southerners especially used fears of miscegenation and interracial sexual violence to uphold a system that privileged white masculinity and white female passivity, while it simultaneously denigrated African-American men and women in order to reinforce their lower socio-economic place. Lynching victims were not, Wells claimed, black rapists of white women but rather were African -American men who had challenged the social or economic status quo.5 Since the advent of second-wave feminism in the late 1960s, anti-rape activists have suggested that rape was not a crime of sexual passion, but rather a crime of power, violence, and control. …