Black-on-White Rape and Retribution in Twentieth-Century Virginia: "Men, Even Negroes, Must Have Some Protection"

By Dorr, Lisa Lindquist | The Journal of Southern History, November 2000 | Go to article overview
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Black-on-White Rape and Retribution in Twentieth-Century Virginia: "Men, Even Negroes, Must Have Some Protection"


Dorr, Lisa Lindquist, The Journal of Southern History


IN HARPER LEE'S 1960 NOVEL, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, TOM ROBINSON, a crippled black man, is accused in 1935 of trying to rape a poor white woman in Maycomb, Alabama. Narrated by Scout Finch, a nine-year-old white girl and the daughter of Robinson's attorney, Atticus Finch, the trial reveals that rather than attempting to rape Mayella Ewell, Robinson is the victim of her sexual advances. When Mayella's father interrupted her seduction of Tom Robinson, he beat her and forced her to accuse Robinson of rape. Scout, realizing for the first time the ugly nature of race relations in the segregated South, informs the reader that Robinson's death is foreordained. "Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed."(1)

Robinson's fictional experience parallels the experiences of many black men in the twentieth-century South, and Scout echoes many scholars' conclusions when she claims that his death was inescapable. For historians, this sense of inevitability is so pervasive that it has shaped most analyses, not only of interracial sexual relations and lynching but also of race relations in the twentieth-century South. The words of Leon F. Litwack in 1998 recall those of Scout Finch: "For a black man, a sexual advance to a white woman was a certain invitation to a tortured death."(2)

Robinson's death may not have been as inevitable as Scout believed. Lee makes clear that the whites in Maycomb were divided along class lines about Tom Robinson's guilt. The rural farmers who composed the jury refused to consider Atticus Finch's appeals to rationality, and they found Robinson guilty. After the jurors had rendered their verdict, their role in the case was finished, The verdict was a catharsis--a performance that resolved the racial tensions raised by Mayella Ewell's accusation. However, white legal authorities, whose class interests were not always aligned with those of the white jurors, controlled the disposition of Tom Robinson's sentence. Elite white men were skeptical of the accusations of Mayella Ewell, the daughter of poor, white "trash." They believed, Lee implies, that the accusation against Robinson grew out of poisoned relations between blacks and poor whites rather than out of attempted rape. The judge and prosecuting attorney at trial made their opinions clear. Scout noticed throughout the trial that Mr. Gilmer, the prosecuting attorney, did not give the case his best effort. Atticus Finch, after the trial, commented on the attitude of the judge towards the Ewells: "John [Taylor, the judge] made [Bob Ewell] look like a fool.... John looked at him as if he were a three-legged chicken or a square egg. Don't tell me judges don't try to prejudice juries."(3) Despite the jury's apparent certainty of Robinson's guilt, Atticus Finch thought it likely that Robinson's conviction would be overturned on appeal. One might surmise that, given the different, class-based opinions about Robinson's guilt, had he not attempted to escape, as his guards claimed, he probably would not have been executed by the state. Class and gender tensions clouded issues of race and suggest that not all whites believed black men accused of assaulting white women should invariably pay with their lives. The possibility that guards staged Robinson's escape in order to mask their vigilante justice underscores this point.(4)

Comparing fictional narratives with actual events, though useful, is complicated. Although fictional situations rarely conform exactly to actual events, Harper Lee's exploration of race, class, and gender relations in a small southern town exposed how racial prejudice produced irrationality among whites, ultimately depriving African Americans of justice. As Atticus said, "people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up."(5) To Kill A Mockingbird suggests that social prejudices, attitudes, and beliefs, controlled primarily by race and class attitudes, determined justice.

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