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Sex and Race

Some Southerners felt lynchings protected the virtue of white women. Why was that important to them?

Jane Dailey:
It has often been important to various groups of men to protect what they call the virtue of the women they consider theirs. In "protecting" a woman's sexual purity, a husband (or father or brother) protects his monopoly on her sexual favors. Protecting the virtue of southern white women meant more than that for white southern men, though. White women personified the South itself -- its mind, its essence, its timeless continuity. White supremacists equated any attack on white womanhood with an attack on the South, and vice versa. As the Pulitzer-prize winning southern author W. J. Cash put it in 1941, any assault on the segregated South would be felt as an assault on white women, and "the South would inevitably translate its whole battle into terms of her defense." In punishing Emmett Till, Bryant and Milam thought they were protecting the white southern way of life. "Protecting" white womanhood was the lynchpin of an ideology, and not just a rhetorical stance.

John David Smith:
Of course whites always positioned their women on a pedestal as they abused black women sexually and psychologically. There are several levels of possible analysis here. By establishing an unrealistic place for white women, white men provided the necessary psychic distance to exploit all blacks and create the mythology of the purity of "mothers" who gave birth to southern white culture. The "untouchable" white women stood in contrast to those black women who, because of their alleged "uncivilized" place in the hierarchy of peoples, had no control over their bodies and who bore the brunt of white racial and sexual exploitation of people of color in the Old and New Souths.

Stephen Whitfield:
The Southern whites who believed that "lynchings protected the virtue of white women" were making several assumptions. One is that white women needed protection, that left on their own they might be intimate with black men, or would be unable to protect themselves against the advances of black men. Another is that lynchings were the consequence of rape or attempted rape, which constituted only a minority of the accusations for which this horrendous and barbaric punishment was the result. Finally there was the assumption that white women were virtuous (which was untrue in the notorious Scottsboro case, involving two white tramps or prostitutes), and that all black men furtively desired white women and would under the right circumstances assault them. White Southern men tended to believe even at mid-century that the aim of the civil rights movement was racial intermarriage, whereas the right to marry the spouse of one's choice irrespective of race was in fact the lowest item on the priorities of those seeking racial equality in the United States.

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