Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Foreword: Crossing the (Color) Line

Academic journal article The Journal of Gender, Race and Justice

Foreword: Crossing the (Color) Line

Article excerpt

For Deputy Circuit Clerk Nell Graves, it would have been improper to actually ask the couple to identify their racial background.1 Instead, like so many other county clerks charged with issuing marriage licenses, she relied on physical appearance and behavior for telltale signs of racial identification.2 In this case, the evidence was overwhelming. Davis Knight and Junie Lee Spradley appeared to be white, and as importantly, others regarded them as white.3 When the pair entered the courthouse in Jones County, Mississippi, on April 18, 1946, Davis was surrounded by "a crowd of white ladies."4 Junie was accompanied by her mother, who was also "a white woman."5 Relying on the couple's physical appearance, behavior, and the behavior of others-surely a crowd of white women would not publicly fraternize with a black man6-Graves assumed that the couple was white and dutifully recorded their marriage license in the record book reserved for marriages between whites.7

As it happened, the telltale signs of racial identity that Graves and others relied on were not foolproof. Two years later, on June 21, 1948, Davis Knight was indicted for violating Section 459 of the Mississippi Code, which prohibited "'[t]he marriage of a white person and a negro or mulatto or person who shall have one-eighth or more of negro blood[.]'"8 Though Knight appeared to be white, the prosecution claimed he was "a Negro or mulatto male person, with 1/8 or more of Negro blood."9 Accordingly, the State averred that Knight "wilfully and feloniously and unlawfully marr[ied] Junie Lee Spradley, a white female person and did wilfully, feloniously and unlawfully . . . cohabit with her as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi."10

It is unclear what prompted Davis Knight's prosecution more than two years after his marriage to Junie Lee Spradley. What is clear is Knight's response to his prosecution. Knight pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.11 He was a white man and he had committed no crime by marrying his wife.

Because the question of Knight's racial status turned on whether or not his great-grandmother Rachel was "a 'fullblooded' African[,]"12 residents of Jones County offered testimony as to the Knight family's racial heritage. To be sure, some of the testimony concerned the physical characteristics of Davis Knight's progenitors. However, much of the testimony focused on less obvious indicia of racial identity-the neighborhoods where Knight's ancestors lived, the churches they attended, and the people with whom they fraternized.13 The logic was clear-blacks and whites existed in separate spheres, divided by an invisible but powerful line that few dared to cross. White people lived with other white people. They attended white churches, and they socialized with other white people. Likewise, black people lived and worshipped with other black people. Though black and white people might, on occasion, interact in public settings, everyone knew that more intimate contact across racial lines was unorthodox. For these reasons, the company one kept-as much as one's physical appearance-furnished clear evidence of racial identity.

Despite Knight's best efforts to establish his bona fides as a white man, the jury returned a guilty verdict.14 Davis Knight was a black man, and he had crossed the line. Knight was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in the state penitentiary.15 Davis Knight's conviction is perhaps unsurprising. His family's complicated racial genealogy was well known throughout Jones County and much of the state.16 And it was Mississippi in the 1940s; the prospect of an interracial couple existing openly in their midst likely did not sit well with the residents of Jones County.

What followed Knight's conviction, however, was surprising. Knight's attorney, Quitman Ross, immediately appealed the conviction, citing numerous procedural errors that had taken place during the trial.17 Ross also argued that the Mississippi law under which Knight had been tried and convicted was unconstitutional. …

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