Rape of an “Eleven Year Old Negro Girl”

By Emily Breeding

“Double Standard in Rape Case!” is a flyer produced in 1962 by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was an African American civil rights organization. The flyer calls for people to appear at the J&D court in Lynchburg, Virginia on the day of the hearing and subsequent trial to “show concern that the double standard of justice be laid aside, and every man be the same before the law… Negro or white”.[1] The flyer, along with other sexual assault cases, demonstrates that civil rights activists frequently used the assaults of black girls by white men to protest injustice to the black man rather than advancing the right for black girls to have control over their own bodies.

The organization that produced the flyer, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded by Martin Luther King Jr. and over 60 other ministers and civil rights activists in 1957. The purpose of the SCLC was to facilitate nonviolent, direct-action operations aimed toward ending discrimination and segregation throughout the South.[2] This flyer is an example of one of the ways in which the Lynchburg, VA unit of the SCLC protested against the unequal sentencing black men faced compared to white men. Legal records in Virginia indicate that from 1901 to 1962, 50 black men were sentenced to the death penalty for rape compared to zero white men.[3] These facts support the SCLC’s claim. The details of the Lynchburg case underlined the discrepancy between the convictions of black and white men by the Virginia Court System. The flyer accounts the details of a case in which a white man who was accused of raping an eleven-year-old “Negro” girl was released on $4,000 bond. The flyer details that there were no publications in the newspaper of the incident until after protest. The man was rearrested and held without bail after protests to public officials.

However, the SCLC did not protest the discrepancy between the value of white women’s bodies and black women’s bodies during this time period. The sentence of a crime is equivalent to the severity of the crime and during this time period, raping a black girl was considered less severe than raping a white girl. This was not included as one of the ways the SCLC protested discrimination, which indicates a lack of attention to the rights of black women and girls by civil rights activists.

The SCLC produced an additional flyer on February 14th, 1963 that asked members to write letters and send telegrams to the Governor of Virginia and the Attorney General. This letter details that the aforementioned rape case was settled in the same week as another, demonstrating a stark difference in the treatment of black and white defendants. “An 18 year-old Negro, Thomas C. Wansley, accused of raping a 50-year old white woman, was sentenced to death by electrocution. At the same time, a 37 year-old white man, George W. Brooks, who was caught by a patrolman while raping an 11 year-old Negro child, was given a five year sentence from which he can be paroled after serving only 18 months.” [4] The SCLC further states that during the trial Wansley was not granted a mental examination by Judge Candiff, unlike the white defendant. The SCLC has a clear purpose in the release of both the flyer and the letter, which is to use the cases of sexual assault to provide evidence of discrimination based on the color of the defendant in the Virginia Court of law. This case could also be used to provide evidence of discrimination based on the color of the survivor. The rape of the older white woman was given more importance and severity than the rape of the eleven-year-old black girl

Although George Brooks was sentenced to five years in prison, the SCLC did not recognize this case as a victory for black women. A different rape case from this time period can be used to examine why this might be. Rosa Lee Coates was a fifteen-year-old African American girl living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. On July 13, 1965 Norman Cannon, a white man who was pursuing the neighborhood in search of help, offered the young girl a babysitting position. After accepting the job offer, Norman gave Rosa Lee a ride to his home and brutally raped her in woods nearby. The case went to trial and Rosa Lee gave her testimony. Cannon was convicted for kidnapping and raping a fifteen-year-old girl, representing the “first time since Reconstruction that a white man had been convicted [and sentenced to life in prison] for raping a Negro”.[5]Although this was reported in national newspapers, it received little recognition from civil rights activist because of the jury’s decision to sentence Cannon to life in prison rather than the electric chair. After the court decision, the NAACP Legal Defense used its lawyers to protest on account of the hundreds of African American men on death row for rape.[6]

The guilty verdict in 1965 was due to decades of testimony and campaigns by black women, which historically have been ignored. For example, black women organized to form the Southern Negro Youth Congress around the case of Recy Taylor, a woman who was gang raped by six white men in Abbeville, AL in 1944. These campaigns drew the connections between patriarchal violence against black women and the hypocrisy of U.S. imperialism.[7] In both the cases of Rosa Lee Coates and the eleven-year-old black girl, civil rights activists chose to focus on the men convicted of rape rather than the female survivors. The legal efforts by the SCLC and NAACP to protest the discrimination in sentencing practices diverted the attention from the larger meanings of both convictions, which was the recognition by the legal court system that white men could rape black girls. The court opinion prior to these court cases followed the stereotype that black women could not be raped. The decision to focus on the convicted men rather than the survivors demonstrates the clear lack of attention to the injustice to black girls bodies during this time period.

[1] Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Double Standard In Rape Case! (Lynchburg, Va: Lynchburg Unit, SCLC, 1962). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[2] Altman, Susan, and Inc NetLibrary. The Encyclopedia of African-american Heritage. (New York: Facts On File, 1997), 236.

[3] Death Penalty USA, U.S.A. Executions 1607-1976, Virginia 1901-1962. http://deathpenaltyusa.org/usa1/state/virginia5.htm

[4] Southern Christian Leadership Conference, February 14, 1963,Virginia: Lynchburg chapter, circa 1962-1984, Subseries 5.2, box 321, folder 17, Stuart A Rose Manuscript Archives and Rare Books Library, Emory University

[5] Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance- a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York, 2010), 195.

[6] McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 198.

[7] McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, 15.