White Fright

The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America's Racist History


By Jane Dailey

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A major new history of the fight for racial equality in America, arguing that fear of black sexuality has undergirded white supremacy from the start.

In White Fright, historian Jane Dailey brilliantly reframes our understanding of the long struggle for African American rights. Those fighting against equality were not motivated only by a sense of innate superiority, as is often supposed, but also by an intense fear of black sexuality.

In this urgent investigation, Dailey examines how white anxiety about interracial sex and marriage found expression in some of the most contentious episodes of American history since Reconstruction: in battles over lynching, in the policing of black troops’ behavior overseas during World War II, in the violent outbursts following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and in the tragic story of Emmett Till. The question was finally settled — as a legal matter — with the Court’s definitive 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which declared interracial marriage a “fundamental freedom.” Placing sex at the center of our civil rights history, White Fright offers a bold new take on one of the most confounding threads running through American history.




A NATIVE OF INDIANA, Emily Reed had been living in Alabama only a few months when she faced a momentous decision. She had taken a job as director of the Alabama Public Library Service Division—not the sort of position that captured headlines. That changed when the Montgomery chapter of the prosegregation White Citizens’ Council demanded that she ban a children’s book, Garth Williams’s The Rabbits’ Wedding, from libraries throughout the state. The book—which told the story of the marriage of a little black bunny to a little white bunny—was attacked by segregationists for promoting interracial marriage.

The notion of an outright ban of The Rabbits’ Wedding rubbed Miss Reed the wrong way. In an effort to mollify the enraged Alabamans without banning the book, she ordered it stowed on her department’s reserve shelves. Her decision pleased neither the Citizens’ Council, the Alabama state government, nor the author, who was appalled by the action and insisted that his book had no political significance. “I was completely unaware,” he announced, “that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings.” In a parting shot at Alabama, soon to be identified in the popular mind with fire hoses and snarling police dogs, Williams declared that the book was not written for adults, and that they would not understand it, “because it is only about a soft, furry love and has no hidden messages of hate.”1

(Undaunted, Reed later included on a state-recommended list of notable books Martin Luther King Jr.’s book Stride Toward Freedom, an account of the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which the successful efforts of local African Americans to desegregate the municipal buses sparked a robust civil rights movement as well as savage white resistance.) Reed’s latest provocation inspired the state legislature to conflate genealogy and culture, and demand that the state library chief be a native of the state and a graduate of the University of Alabama or Auburn University.

A stranger to Alabama’s racial politics, Emily Reed was surprised by the reaction to The Rabbits’ Wedding. More astute—or at least more experienced—students of Southern social relations would not have been. The racially segregated and suffocating world of Jim Crow, which lasted from roughly 1890 until the 1960s, was rooted in fears of interracial sex and racial reproduction. When The Rabbits’ Wedding was banned in 1959, marriage across the color line was prohibited in twenty-nine states, including Alabama and Reed’s home state of Indiana. Most of those laws remained on the books until 1967, when the United States Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. Throughout this era, the politics, social relations, and laws of the South reflected and reproduced white fears of interracial sex and marriage.

As early as the abolition of slavery in 1865, advocates for African American equality understood that racially restrictive sex and marriage laws, and the state-enforced regime of racial identification that those laws made possible, lay at the heart of the segregated system they struggled to overthrow. In 1905, the sociologist, journalist, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote the right to “associate with those who wish to associate with me” into the pledge of the Niagara Movement, the predecessor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). After the NAACP was formed in 1909, its first national lobbying victory was to convince Congress not to pass a racially restrictive marriage law for the District of Columbia. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Communist Party of the United States and Communist-affiliated organizations called for complete social equality and the repeal of state antimiscegenation laws. During and immediately after World War II, Christian interracial associations like the Federal Council of Churches joined secular radicals in this call. In the 1950s and 1960s, new organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also embraced this position on sex and marriage even as they focused primarily on issues of education, voting, and housing.

Given the centrality of racially restrictive sex and marriage laws to the creation and maintenance of white supremacy, one would expect their reversal to have been a top priority for advocates of African American equality. But for all the advocacy and lobbying against these laws, there was never a mass movement to overturn them. When the Supreme Court finally ruled in Loving v. Virginia that laws forbidding Americans to marry across the color line violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the case was argued by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), not the NAACP.

For more than a century, between emancipation and 1967, African American rights were closely bound, both in law and in the white imagination, to the question of interracial sex and marriage. At every stage of the struggle for civil rights, sex played a central role, even when its significance was left unspoken. Overcoming the conflation of sexual and civil rights was a project of decades and arguably the greatest challenge champions of Black equality faced.

INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE WAS regulated in America for more than three hundred years. In the beginning, in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia, freeborn English men and women were permitted to marry Africans and the indigenous people Europeans called Indians. But laws governing interracial sex and marriage emerged only a few years after the first contact between Africans and Europeans in America and played an essential role in establishing stable categories of Blackness and whiteness, and therefore stable categories of slave and free.

The sexual activity of white men with Black women, mainly between masters and slaves, produced most of the mixed-race population in the South. The majority of these encounters were almost certainly coerced, either through force or through more subtle invocations of the vast disparity of power between the partners. The children born of such unions were enslaved, as their legal status followed that of their mother. As time went on, liaisons between white women and colored men, tolerated as recently as the seventeenth century, presented a social dilemma insofar as the mixed-race children of white women were free, and undermined efforts to link freedom and racial identity.

In an attempt to solder status to race once and for all, Southern states passed new laws in the eighteenth century that prohibited marriages between whites and Blacks and also punished people who engaged in interracial adultery. The first legal ban on interracial marriage was a 1705 Virginia act, which also defined who was nonwhite.

These laws did not mean that white and Black Americans stopped having sex with each other. Although white men crossed the racial boundary in search of sex more often than white women did, even white women’s interracial sexual liaisons went uncensored more than might be expected. Sex between Black men and white women seems to have been tolerated unless and until such unions produced mixed-race children. Dorothea Bourne, for example, could probably have indefinitely sustained her long-standing adulterous affair with a neighbor’s slave had she not borne his child. The arrival of a suspiciously dark baby cast Dorothea’s much older husband, Lewis, in the public role of cuckold, and he filed for divorce in 1824.

Prosecutions under the anti-intermarriage statutes often turned on complex questions of racial identity. A court could rule that a marriage was illegal only once the racial identities of the spouses could be established at law. Miscegenation as transgression depended on the establishment of clear legal boundaries to transgress. Yet miscegenation as historical fact undercut those very boundaries. Because miscegenation threatened to undermine any system of straightforward racial classification, it became a problem for the Southern social and labor system, which depended more and more on clear distinctions between white and nonwhite.

Mixed-race families nonetheless flourished without much incident from the eighteenth century until well into the nineteenth, though public opinion was by then hardening against interracial sex and marriage.2 Antebellum state legislatures wrote laws defining racial categories for the purpose of marriage, outlining people’s marital possibilities according to the various numerical degrees of Blackness. Depending on the state and the decade, people who were more than half Black, one-fourth Black, one-eighth Black, one-sixteenth Black, or even one-thirty-second Black could not marry anyone defined as white under the law. In 1850, the US Census introduced a new racial category of “mulatto” and concluded that 11 percent of the nation’s African Americans were mixed race.3 Most of this population was enslaved, but an unknown number of mixed-race Americans lived as free men and women, many of them “passing” across a color barrier that was more akin to a barbed-wire fence than a wall.4

Arguments about interracial sex and marriage became highly politicized in the late 1850s, following the birth of the Republican Party in 1856. In the 1858 Illinois senatorial campaign, Republican Abraham Lincoln was confronted by Democrats hoisting a banner depicting a Black man, a white woman, and an interracial child. Democrat Stephen A. Douglas accused Lincoln of supporting Black-white “social equality,” a charge Lincoln rebutted, proclaiming that he did not favor “the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Lincoln emphatically denied any support of interracial marriage, and he pledged to uphold Illinois’s law forbidding interracial sex and marriage. Six years later, in the 1864 presidential election, Democrats portrayed President Lincoln and other Republicans as champions of “miscegenation,” a term a pair of Democratic political operatives coined to describe the amalgamation of the races through sex across the color line.

This fixation on interracial sex was a new development. Before the Civil War, white slaveholders who reveled in their sexual domination of slave women had not concerned themselves with maintaining white “racial purity.” Nor did they worry about Black men, slave or free, raping white women. They were more concerned, in fact, with the possibility that white women might desire and pursue slave men, as Dorothea Bourne did.5 As the historian Eugene Genovese wrote more than forty years ago, the “titillating and violence-provoking theory of the superpotency of that black superpenis, while whispered about for several centuries, did not become an obsession in the South until after emancipation.”6 White anxiety about African American sexual prowess and Black men’s desirability to white women emerged alongside the enfranchisement of African American men during Reconstruction.

Starting with the first congressional debates over the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution, opponents of African American equality began to link sexual and political rights, arguing that emancipation and, especially, the enfranchisement of Black men would inevitably lead to interracial sex, marriage, and children. As one Southerner laid it out, “Do away with the social and political distinctions now existing, and you immediately turn all the blacks and mulattoes into citizens, co-governors, and acquaintances: and acquaintances… are the raw material from which are manufactured friends, husbands, and wives. The man whom you associate with is next invited to your house, and the man whom you invited to your house is the possible husband of your daughter, whether he be black or white.” This fixation on interracial sex—or, in the language of the postemancipation South, miscegenation and amalgamation—was not only an individual reality but became a powerful political disposition crafted in opposition to African American liberty and political power after the Civil War.

Champions of Black voting (especially if Black men voted Republican) insisted that clear lines could be drawn between political and what became known as “social” rights. “It is fright that makes you mistake a ballot for a billet-doux” (love letter), Republican William “Pig Iron” Kelley teased the Democrats in 1868. “It cannot be possible that any man of common sense can bring himself to believe that marriages between any persons, much less between white and colored people, will take place because a colored man is allowed to drop a little bit of paper into a box.”

But many white men believed exactly this, and after emancipation in 1865, “white supremacy” acquired both new meaning and, for white Southerners, new urgency. As practiced by those dedicated to the proposition, “white supremacy” was both a social argument and a political program designed to reestablish white men’s social and political dominance after the war and Reconstruction. Forged out of the catastrophic Confederate loss, the new, supposedly “solid” white-supremacist South of the turn of the twentieth century was not the immediate outcome of the war but the product of forty years of violence, voting fraud, and mass disenfranchisement.

What became known as the Jim Crow South, after a minstrel character and dance, was founded on two interrelated lies: on the supposed political incapacity and unworthiness of African American men, and on their inborn tendency to sexual predation and fixation on white women. This false narrative of African American civic incompetence and sexual rapaciousness arose alongside Black electoral success and participation in governance.

These myths did not preempt Black empowerment. White Southern men had already experienced the effectiveness of African American participation in governance after emancipation by the time these stories began to spread. During Reconstruction, Black men held political office in every state of the former Confederacy. Twenty-two African Americans were elected to Congress between 1870 and 1900, including two US senators, both from Mississippi. More than one hundred Black men won election or appointment to posts with jurisdiction over entire states, and almost eight hundred served in state legislatures. A much larger number held public office at the local level.7 The argument that Black men were inherently unfit to participate in democratic rule came in response to their electoral potency, not as an effort to prevent it.

Across the South, but especially in the Upper South, freed Blacks and Republican or dissident Democratic whites combined, usually in support of fiscal policies that would deliver public services for everyone, such as schools and hospitals. These interracial coalition parties did surprisingly well in a political region where partisan divides were expected to parallel the color line, and they contributed to the volatility of late nineteenth-century Southern politics. The success of each of these factions depended on the ballots of African Americans, who voted in most places throughout the late nineteenth century.

Black-white political fusion galvanized elite white Southerners, whose power was threatened by this development, to use every weapon at their disposal to end the danger of biracial opposition parties. Building on grids of kinship and political patronage, and fired up by the experience of military defeat, white men across the South reacted to the political mobilization of Black men with unprecedented violence. Functioning effectively as the paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party, the Ku Klux Klan and other allied groups organized in the late 1860s and early 1870s to destroy the political infrastructure of Black life. Reconstruction was experienced as an organized brawl in many states as the Democrats captured control of state governments through a combination of intimidation, electoral fraud, and violence, including indiscriminate massacres of Black men, women, and children, and political assassination. White Republicans who allied with Black men were also targets. In one incident in Louisiana in 1876, armed white supremacists executed six white Republican officeholders. That same year in Mississippi, White League units murdered some three hundred African Americans.8

Both elements of white Democrats’ justification for Jim Crow—Black incompetence and interracial sexual designs—were necessary components of their region-wide campaign to enhance their own power at the expense of all others. By the dawn of the twentieth century, white supremacists had stripped Black men, and a majority of Southern white men as well, of political power, justifying their actions through a new political discourse about racial purity and sexual danger. African Americans, particularly Black men, were left in the position of fighting a powerful and perilous new representation of themselves.

ALTHOUGH SOME SLAVES gained their freedom by escaping during the war and some by joining the Union army, most slaves were emancipated through a series of statutes passed by Congress between 1862 and 1865, and, finally, through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (ratified in 1866). The new amendment declared, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” An enabling clause endowed Congress with the authority to enact “appropriate legislation” to enforce the amendment.9

The Thirteenth Amendment did more than abolish slavery—though how much more was subject to debate. By failing to define the terms of the amendment, its authors invited a conversation about its attributes and about the meaning of emancipation, freedom, and equality. African Americans considered everything that constrained life on the basis of race part of the definition of slavery. Rather than define “freedom” in abstract terms vulnerable to constriction, African Americans and some white abolitionists spoke concretely of what might be termed “not-slavery.” As an assembly of Alabama freedmen put it as early as 1865, “We claim exactly the same rights, privileges and immunities as are enjoyed by white men, because the law no longer knows white or black, but simply men.”

First and foremost, not-slavery meant self-sovereignty and recognition of one’s humanity, by oneself and others. Slavery robbed people of personal autonomy. Emancipation, in theory, restored it. Free people moved about the land and lived where they chose. Free people were protected from assault to their persons: whipping, branding, rape, mutilation, forced labor, kidnapping, murder.10 Free people formed lasting human bonds within the institution of marriage if they chose. Free people governed their domestic households, including their children and, if husbands, their wives. Free people were welcome in the common spaces of the public sphere: schools and libraries, theaters and parks, places of public accommodation and refreshment. Free people had access to all the rights other people enjoyed, including rights to property and contract and the right to join in the common project of democratic governance. The most obvious means of participating in the governance of the people was by voting. As Frederick Douglass, the premier African American leader, argued in May 1865, less than a month after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”11

Whereas African Americans considered the Thirteenth Amendment to contain within it the necessary attributes of freedom, whites in Congress were embroiled in a heated effort to define and enumerate the rights of free people. When all-white Southern legislatures passed laws in late 1865 known as the Black Codes, which severely restricted African American movement, freedom of association, and employment, Congress was obliged to expand on its understanding of abolition. The task fell to Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, who had drafted the Thirteenth Amendment. Elected to the Senate by the Illinois legislature in 1855 over, among other candidates, Abraham Lincoln, Trumbull was one of the first Republicans to see emancipation as a war goal. Responding both to white persecution of the freedpeople and to the demands of Southern Blacks for “a republican form of government” (i.e., one that included them), Trumbull drafted the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This act was designed to enforce congressional Republicans’ understanding of the freedom promised to slaves by the Thirteenth Amendment, and it guaranteed African Americans the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

When doubts arose about the constitutionality of the 1866 act, Republicans enacted the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraced African Americans as citizens, guaranteeing “due process of law,” “equal protection of the laws,” and “the privileges or immunities of citizenship” to all persons. It also incented white Southerners to permit Black suffrage by reducing the congressional representation of any state that denied the vote to male citizens aged twenty-one or older.

Although the Fourteenth Amendment eventually became the most powerful constitutional tool for the protection of minority rights, in the short term it failed to guarantee the political participation of Black men. In 1868, the Georgia legislature dealt with the election of African American representatives by expelling them, prompting Congress to draft its third and final Reconstruction amendment. The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited any state to deny any citizen the right to vote on “account of race.” The amendment was silent about the right to hold office and did not forbid other suffrage restrictions such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Yet despite its limitations, the Fifteenth Amendment enshrined in the nation’s fundamental law the principle that no citizen may, on account of race, be denied the right, as its Senate sponsor William Stewart put it, “to protect his own liberty” through participation in governance.12

THOUGH MARRIAGE WAS not expressly mentioned in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the act provided that all “citizens, of every race and color,… shall have the same right… to make and enforce contracts… as is enjoyed by white citizens.” Whether interracial marriage was a “contract” within the meaning of this guarantee was a matter of sharp debate during Reconstruction.13 Indeed, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the 1866 act on the grounds that it might be construed to forbid laws against interracial marriage. “I do not say that this bill repeals State laws on the subject of marriage between the two races,” Johnson explained, but he worried that if it allowed “Congress [to] abrogate all State laws of discrimination between the two races in the matter of real estate, or suits, and of contracts generally,” could it not “repeal the State laws as to the contract of marriage between the two races?”14 The act was passed over Johnson’s veto, but the effect of the law on interracial marriages remained obscure.

Marriage had always been regulated exclusively by the states. In addition to incorporating traditional limitations on polygamy, consanguinity, and age of consent, many state legislatures in the nineteenth century prohibited interracial marriage. These laws, of course, restricted the liberty of whites as well as Blacks, however porous the legal definition of each category might be. After the Civil War, Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming all enacted or reenacted antimiscegenation laws. Moreover, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, and Wyoming went even further, passing laws prohibiting interracial sex.15 Nevertheless, under interracial Republican rule during Reconstruction, seven of eleven states of the former Confederacy repealed their antimiscegenation laws or declared them unconstitutional.16 Given the prominence of Black men in these political coalitions, it was not paranoid of white Southerners to fear that African American men empowered with the vote would wield it against other race-based laws.

During the early postwar era, Radical Republicans tried to carve space for Black political participation by pushing vexing questions of social relationships to the margins. Drawing a sharp boundary between the public world of men and the private world of families, Republican politicians staked the future of interracial democracy on their ability to detach interracial marriage from the bundle of rights otherwise belonging to the freedpeople. White supporters of civil rights went out of their way to explain that they had no intention of outlawing antimiscegenation laws, and that, indeed, new legislation protecting African Americans’ civil rights had nothing to do with marriage.

When asked during debate on the Civil Rights Act whether a Black man had a civil right to marry a white woman, Lyman Trumbull replied that the law’s chief object was “to secure the same civil rights and subject to the same punishment persons of all races and colors.” How “does this interfere with [a state law] preventing marriages between whites and blacks?” Trumbull asked. “[The law] forbidding marriages between whites and blacks operates alike on both races. This bill does not interfere with it. If the negro is denied the right to marry a white person, the white person is equally denied the right to marry the negro. I see no discrimination against either in this respect that does not apply to both.”17

Congressional Democrats rejected this concept of segmented rights and forged a link between sexual and political rights, warning that giving Black men the vote would lead inevitably to interracial marriage and the leveling of all social distinctions. Insisted Kentucky senator Garrett Davis, “The races are either equal or unequal.… If they are equal, they not only have the right to vote, but they have the right to be eligible to all offices; they not only have the right to civil protection and to enjoy all civil rights, but they are entitled also to all political and social rights.”18

Republicans did their best to unlock the logic that underlay this Democratic vision—that there was an inexorable progression from citizens to cogovernors to acquaintances to family—but doing so proved both difficult and frustrating. During congressional debate over Black suffrage, a Pennsylvania Republican accused the Democrats of injecting the miscegenation issue into every discussion: “Let our sensitive friends compose their nerves and try to tell us how a little enlargement of the elective franchise… will result in marriage between the two races.”19 “Social” rights such as marriage, argued the Republicans, were separable from political or civil rights such as voting; indeed, legal prohibitions on interracial sex and marriage could serve as the barrier between an integrated masculine public sphere and a private sphere where racial separation still applied.


  • “This idea, that American white supremacy was built from white anxiety over purity—sexual and otherwise—forms the foundation of Dailey’s well-researched new book. It’s not a belief likely to surprise those literate in African-American history, but her argument that fear of Black sexuality and miscegenation has been the driving force behind structural racism and white supremacy is confident and persuasive”—New York Times
  • “Students of the civil rights movement and constitutional law will find plenty of useful information…A methodical journey through significant legal questions involving racism in America.”—Kirkus
  • “Racism seems to be contagious, but seeing more books like White Fright in stores, on shelves, and in hands feels like a step towards a cure.”—Porchlight
  • “An illuminating contribution to the history of racism in America, White Fright reveals how white anxieties around gender and sexuality shaped the Black experience of social injustice.”—Bookpage
  • “In her original, nuanced historical investigation, Dailey adds a new dimension to the history of civil rights by focusing on the anxiety over Black sexuality and miscegenation and the quest for white ‘racial purity’.... Dailey’s richly told narrative provides a rewarding perspective on the battle for civil rights.”—National Book Review
  • "This indispensable narrative powerfully illuminates how anxieties about 'miscegenation' and interracial marriage shaped and sustained white supremacy for four centuries. Every American should read this book."—Drew Gilpin Faust, author of This Republic of Suffering
  • "In White Fright historian Jane Dailey skillfully untangles the purposefully snarled concepts of sex, marriage, and politics at the foundation of the White supremacist American political economy that followed Reconstruction. More than a century and a half later, such gut-level concepts underlie our current politics, making White Fright essential reading right now. As Dailey shows, the history of anti-Blackness is White history."
    Nell Irvin Painter, author of Southern History Across the Color Line
  • "To understand the true virulence of white supremacy in America, and to grasp just how hard won the fights against it have been, one must reckon with the extent to which racist laws and actions have always, in fact, been fueled by white obsessions about sex. Jane Dailey's latest, a most powerful recovery of this insidious history, must be read by all."—Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize-Winning author of Blood in the Water
  • "Jane Dailey's peerless contribution is the revelation of how African Americans came to rebut not only the arch segregationists of the Deep South, but also the white moderates who dared to prescribe what Blacks "ought to want"-even after the Nazis copied the laws that such well-to-do whites helped keep in place. A must-read to understand how the right to choose whom to love and marry lost its centuries-old exclusivity."
    Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains

On Sale
Nov 17, 2020
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Jane Dailey

About the Author

Jane Dailey is an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. A recipient of fellowships from the American Academy in Berlin and the Guggenheim Foundation, she is also the author and coauthor of several previous books, including Before Jim Crow and Building the American Republic. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

Learn more about this author