Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

Race, Rape, and Injustice: Documenting and Challenging Death Penalty Cases in the Civil Rights Era

Authors: Barret J. Foerster & Michael Meltsner

University of Tennessee Press, 2012

Price: $ 39.95

ISBN: 978-1-57233-862-3

In 1965, about two dozen white northern law students, mostly men, headed into the South to research racial bias in sentencing in rape cases. Their efforts to document the manner in which old rape cases were handled (perhaps more appropriately, mishandled) produced substantial documentation that Southern justice was discriminatory against blacks in rape cases, perhaps in all sorts of cases. This book describes not only the difficult to dangerous environment in which the students worked but, more important, the aftermath and the legal significance of the data they collected.

The author, Barret J. Foerster, was one of the law students and after a successful career that culminated in a federal judgeship in California; he decided that the episode and its consequences had been long enough neglected. So he contacted other student researchers as well as those who used the data in subsequent years to bring about change in the criminal courts, even to influence Supreme Court decisions. Interviews and documents provided the basis for not only a recapturing of the 1965 adventure but the fruits of that perilous effort.

The civil rights revolution of the sixties was in full sway in the South, times were turbulent, nay dangerous, and the students were cautious in their venture, seeking to maintain a low profile as they explored case files and the like, collecting the data that would form the basis of a database documenting the reality that black on white rape was much more likely than any other type to result in a death sentence.

The work moves quickly past the dangerous activities but not before reestablishing the mid 1960s South as a tinderbox of racial tensions and white hostility to blacks and northerners. Race, Rape, and Justice brings out the hostility or uncooperativeness of white officials, the belligerence of other whites when they learned the purpose of the northern white intruders. The mood of the South during the sixties shines through the section on the research effort. The deaths of Michael Schwemer, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman were still recent events when the law students ventured into enemy territory in search of data on differential sentencing in rape cases. Happily, the students escaped unscathed.

The data showed what the researchers expected, that blacks convicted of raping white women were disproportionately sentenced to death. …

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