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The Intersection of Race and Rape Viewed through the Prism of a Modern-Day Emmett Till

Chelsea Hale and Meghan Matt


  • This piece explores the historical practice of exploiting and violating the bodies of African American women with impunity.
  • We also look at stories of modern-day Emmett Tills, specifically, how African American defendants accused of raping white women are treated differently under the law.
  • By altering the application of the law, all women—especially African American women—should be seen as a human and therefore deserving of protection under the law.
The Intersection of Race and Rape Viewed through the Prism of a Modern-Day Emmett Till
olhakozachenko via Getty Images

Emmett Till’s name sparks immediate emotion and often sends chills down the spine of any American with a beating heart. Fourteen-year-old Emmett was murdered in 1955, but his name and his story still conjure emotions today. Perhaps that’s because many of us are aware of the unspoken reality surrounding Emmett’s story—aspects and versions of it live on through the lives of many other African American men such as the one who inspired this article.

This modern Emmett Till was convicted as a teenager and is presently serving a 100-year sentence in Louisiana for the attempted rape of two white teenage girls in the 1970s. As Mammie Till changed the course of history with her decision to “let the world see” the brutalized body of her young son, we have similar ambitions. We wish to disrupt a disturbing narrative surrounding the intersection of race and rape—specifically, how African American defendants accused of raping white women and African American women raped by white men are treated differently under the law.


The chattel slavery system. The practice of exploiting and violating the bodies of African American women with impunity is an ancient one. During America’s chattel slavery system, white slave owners freely and legally raped the women whom they enslaved, often in front of their families. They used rape to assert their power and authority over their property without accountability. The offspring of enslaved women were then also considered their master’s property, giving these men more economic power and further stripping African American women of the rights to their own bodies and babies. The legal system enforced this by the sin of omission. No Louisiana law made the rape of a black woman, slave or free, a crime. Rape was specifically limited to white women under the state’s law. However, Louisiana’s provisions mandated capital punishment for both the rape and the attempted rape of a white female by a slave.

 In 1845, James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, began experimenting on enslaved women without consent and without any anesthesia, causing untold suffering. Operating under the mere racist notion that African American people did not feel pain, he asked his patients, who were completely naked, to perch on their knees and bend forward onto their elbows so their heads rested on their hands. After 30 operations and 4 years spent experimenting on a 17-year-old enslaved woman, he finally “perfected” his method. Only then did he begin to practice on white women, to whom he freely administered anesthesia. Sims’s heinous acts were legally permissible because enslaved women were considered no more than their master’s property and were allowed no autonomy over their own bodies.

The lynching era. This continued into the lynching era, when the most common reason for public lynching was the perception that white women needed to be protected from African American rapists and attempted rapists. Black men were painted as sexually deviant monsters. In fact, writer and politician Rebecca Latimer Felton said, “If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand times a week if necessary.” Between 1880 and 1950, around 5,000 people were lynched, nearly 6 people every month for 70 years.

Jim Crow. During the Jim Crow era, white men used rape and rumors of rape not only to justify violence against African American men but also to remind African American women that their bodies were not their own. Here, once again, white men in positions of power over African American women, such as police officers and employers, used sexual assault and rape to dominate them. In early 1930 in New Orleans, a 14-year-old African American girl named Hattie McCray repeatedly fought off a police officer attempting to rape her. In response to her bravery, he shot and killed her. Patricia Hill Collins observed of this continuing practice, “No longer the property of a few white men, African American women [and girls] became sexually available to all white men.”

Legalized lynching. Next, America moved to the period of legalized lynching. It is during this time that we moved from extrajudicial execution—lynchings—to judicially enforced lynchings, also known as capital punishment. Here, courts applied what is best described as situational reasoning. If the accused was African American and the victim white, the jury was entitled to draw the inference, based on race alone, that he intended to rape her. This helps to explain very troubling sentencing patterns. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 1930 and 1972, 455 people were executed for rape, and 405 of those were African American. Moreover, according to the Wolfgang and Riedel study, African American defendants whose victims were white were sentenced to death about 18 times more frequently than defendants in any other racial combination of defendant and victim. Notably, no white man has ever been executed in the U.S. for the non-homicide rape of an African American woman or child.

A 1983 study concluded that African American men convicted of raping white women receive more serious sanctions than all other sexual assault defendants. Another study in Dallas found that the median sentence for an African American man who raped a white woman was 19 years, whereas a white man who raped an African American woman received a 10-year sentence. Furthermore, African American defendants are subjected to a disproportionate number of wrongful convictions for rape.

Statistically, African American women are much more likely to be victims of rape than are white women, and often they are subsequently re-victimized by the judicial system. If these facts don’t cause alarm, perhaps the truth will. In a 1971 study on judges’ attitudes toward African American rape victims, a judge was quoted as saying, “With the Negro community, you really have to redefine rape. You never know about them.”

The Imbalance of Justice

There is a heavy imbalance of justice between African American defendants accused of raping white women and white men accused of raping African American women. Despite changes being made to the current laws, the interpretation of the law or the law as it is applied has not changed. For instance, in Coker v. Georgia, the defendant was convicted of rape and sentenced to death. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a “sentence of death for [the] crime of rape of adult woman was grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment forbidden by the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment.”

Treatment of African American women victims of rape. Another imbalance of justice involves the trial experiences of rape victims. The case of Betty Jean Owens is a perfect illustration of this. Armed with switchblades and shotguns, four white boys from Florida made a pact to “go out and get a nigger girl” and have an “all night party.” On May 3, 1959, four white males crept up to a car, pointed a shotgun at the driver, and forced the black students out of the car. After one fled and two were ordered to leave, Betty Jean Owens was left alone with the four white males and was forced into a car belonging to one of them. After the four males drove her to a different side of town, Betty Jean Owens was forcibly raped seven times. Later that evening, an officer found Owens bound and gagged, lying on the backseat floorboards. When he attempted to help Owens out of the car, she collapsed once her feet touched the ground.

Owens testified in front of an all-white jury, a prejudicial defense, and 400 witnesses who gathered in the courtroom. Not only was she violently raped seven times by her four attackers, she was also psychologically raped by the defense while testifying on the witness stand. Betty Jean Owens is a profound demonstration of an African American woman having a surplus of proof—confessions from her attackers, eyewitness testimony, and physical evidence—showing her white attackers’ guilt, but yet not receiving justice. Alternatively, in the case of the African American man serving a 100-year sentence, his accusers needed only the power of a white woman’s word to certify an African American man’s guilt.

Treatment of African American men accused of rape. Samuel Shepard, Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, and Ernest Thomas, known as the Groveland Four, were accused of raping a white woman in 1949. At the age of 17, Norma Padgett informed police she had been abducted and raped by four men. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepard were charged, jailed, and beaten on the night of their arrest. Subsequently, an all-white jury sentenced 16-year-old Greenlee to life in prison, while Irvin and Shepard, both World War II veterans, received the death penalty. Unlike the other three men, Ernest Thomas was shot to death before he could be charged or tried for the alleged crime. Prior to his death, Thomas was “hunted for more than 30 hours . . . by an armed, deputized posse of approximately 1,000 men with bloodhounds.”

Irvin’s and Shepard’s appeals reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which upon review, ordered a retrial. Instead of following the judgment rendered by the Supreme Court, Sheriff Willis McCall handcuffed the two men, drove them to the countryside, and shot them. Although McCall would argue his actions were in self-defense, Irvin was wounded and Shepard died. When Irvin was retried, he was sentenced to death; however, that sentence was later converted to life in prison. Just one year after being released on parole, Irvin passed away in 1969. Greenlee was released in 1962 and lived until his death in 2012. Seventy years after the Groveland Four were wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, they received a pardon from Governor DeSantis, who labeled this tragedy a “miscarriage of justice.” Along with their posthumous pardon, the City of Groveland issued an apology to the men and their families.

In 2016, Malik St. Hilaire, along with another African American student from Sacred Heart University, was falsely accused of raping a white student, Nikki Yovino. Initially, Yovino claimed the two African American students raped her in a bathroom during an off-campus party. Investigators stated that they believed Yovino’s initial story and appeared to have witness statements to corroborate her claims. However, another student came forward to police and reported explicit text messages between Yovino and the two accused students. After being confronted by police, Yovino admitted to making up the story because she worried her “consensual encounter” with the two students would damage her relationship with a different student. Because of her lies, the two African American students were left to suffer the consequences of having been convicted in the court of public opinion. One of the male students lost his football scholarship after Yovino made the allegations, and both students withdrew from Sacred Heart University.

Even though a criminal trial was never held, the two young black males were given the excessive sentence of guilt before a thorough investigation was ever conducted. Even with Yovino’s lenient penalty for falsely reporting a crime, these two young men’s lives have been forever altered because the color of their skin was different from that of their wrongful accuser.

The “presumption of innocence.” These examples illustrate a legal shorting when it comes to the legal concepts of “presumption of innocence.” The “presumption of innocence,” not expressly enumerated in the U.S Constitution, comes from the Bill of Rights. The general theory is that every defendant charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, by preconceived notion, a man of color accused of rape, by a white woman, is presumed guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the case of a white man accused of raping an African American woman, the presumption of guilt shifts from the white defendant to the African American female victim. Here, there is a presumption that a woman is unchaste because the color of her skin is black. Alternatively, the standard applied to the white defendant is the presumption that he is innocent until the African American victim is proven pure, innocent, and deserving of the law beyond a white person’s reasonable doubt.

Inequity in application of the law. Research shows that laws and procedural mechanisms applied in cases involving African American men accused of raping white women void the presumption of innocence or apply a different standard of the law than in the case of a white man accused of raping an African American woman. In the case of Betty Jean Owens and others, the white attackers confessed to raping African American women. Even with the confessions of their white attackers and the detailed testimony of these African American victims, juries responded with leniency and mercy. The outcome in the cases of the Groveland Four, Gregory Counts, and VanDyke Perry, however, is that the word of their white accusers alone was sufficient to find them guilty of rape simply because they were African American men.

When it comes to rape, African Americans theoretically receive equal protection under the law but do not actually receive equity in the application of the law. Equality without equity provides a pathway for African Americans to continuously find themselves lynched and victimized by the justice system, time and time again. Although Emmett Till’s death was over 60 years ago, the physical slaughter and disregard for his body are emblematically carried out by the social and judicial nullification of African Americans’ lives today.

In 1955, the imbalance of justice prevented Till—whose eye was beaten from its socket, who was fatally shot, and whose body was weighed down by a 75-pound fan—from receiving justice. Today, the scales of justice continue to weigh down African American men; moreover, African American women are still beaten down by a judicial system that refuses to protect them under the law.


There are so many cases like that of our modern-day Emmett Till, who is serving a 100-year sentence for the rape of two white girls. Furthermore, there are also countless Betty Jean Owenses who have never come forward because of the presumption of guilt their race carries. Their stories, along with many others, represent the unchanged and reoccurring reinforcement of power and ownership when it comes to the bodies of African American women, accompanied by the presumption of guilt when it comes to African American men. When a woman comes forward with an accusation of rape against any man, the issue shouldn’t be the law treating her as it did when she was property because of her race. By altering the application of the law, all women—especially African American women—should be seen as a human and therefore deserving of protection under the law.

A legal scholar once commented, “While white women have been spared at all costs, African-American women’s bodies have always been like a buffet for white men to have, and take, and come back as often as they wanted.” Both history and our present legal system prove this to be true.