Months after Strom Thurmond's African-American daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, stepped into history, commentators continue to step around the most explosive aspect of this controversy with the same stealth that ushered Thurmond into interracial fatherhood at 22. Thurmond, icon of the Bible-toting, family-values-promoting right, not only contradicted his segregationist credo by impregnating young Carrie Butler in 1925, he most likely violated the law against statutory rape. Yet the very real possibility that Butler was a victim of an illegal sexual assault has been virtually ignored by a media eager to commend Thurmond's families for playing nice. The celebration of their gentility and patience implies that it would be indecorous to raise the question of whether this all-American story began in sexual abuse.
Any serious inquiry into the likelihood that Butler was the victim of statutory rape was precluded by the Washington Post's inaccurate report that the age of consent in South Carolina was 14 in 1925, which was widely repeated in print and electronic media. In fact, a South Carolina statute enacted in 1922 criminalized the carnal knowledge of any woman under 16. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine whether Thurmond violated that law without Butler's birth date, for which there are no records. But we do know that when she delivered her child on October 12, 1925, she was at most 16–according to Washington-Williams, Butler was born in 1909 or 1910. The only way the conclusion of statutory rape could be avoided is if Butler was born no later than early January 1909, and conception occurred just after her sixteenth birthday. Of course, the odds are against this meticulous alignment.
No doubt apologists will remind us that the possibility of statutory rape does not alone suggest that Butler did not consent to the act. But in a climate characterized by fear and abject racial intimidation, the question of whether Carrie Butler, an impoverished maid in the Thurmond family household, freely consented is virtually meaningless. The more telling question is whether there was any way she could freely say no. Even as a teenager, Butler had to understand that her chances of protecting her sexual autonomy against the desires of the determined son of Edgefield's most prominent family were virtually nonexistent. The protection law promised was empty; after all, statutory rape laws were not written to protect girls like Butler.
For most critics of sexual racism, this is simply a textbook case of a white man getting away with sexual behavior that would have sent an African-American man to his death. Needless to say, had either of Thurmond's underaged twin sisters given birth to a mocha-colored baby, somebody would have had to pay, most likely with his life. In fact, Thurmond was not only a privileged recipient of this double standard, he was one of its perpetrators. In 1942, Judge Thurmond sent George Thomas, a black man, to the electric chair based on an alleged rape victim's cross-race identification, testimony now known to be extremely unreliable. Thurmond refused defense pleas to move the trial to a safer venue, even though the community's lust for Thomas's lynching grew so feverish the National Guard had to be called in. A jury took little more than an hour to convict the defendant, notwithstanding the exculpatory testimony of at least nine people who placed the defendant elsewhere at the time of the alleged rape. The defendant's only chance of survival was destroyed when Thurmond misled the appellate court about the lynch-mob atmosphere that pervaded the trial.
While the repression of black male sexuality dominates most discussions of sexual racism, the silence surrounding the sexual abuse of black women remains relatively unexplored. The contemporary media's refusal to acknowledge Carrie Butler as a likely victim of such abuse reflects the sexual racism that black women continue to face today.
Indeed, the possibility that Thurmond's transgression might have gone beyond statutory rape to include the use of force has not even been raised. Yet consider what is known about Thurmond. In 1924 he had already developed a reputation in college for his sexually aggressive conduct–and this was with white women. Thurmond's sexually inappropriate behavior didn't end there; stories abound about his groping women in the Capitol, including a senator and a government agent. If Thurmond was not above the unwelcome fondling of some of America's most powerful women long after the women's movement established that such boorish behavior was unacceptable, is it such a stretch to imagine him ignoring the protests of a powerless black teenager in 1925?
This is precisely the kind of horror black women workers confronted for generations. One of the first lessons black girls were taught was to beware sexually predatory white men. No doubt that's why African-American women were among the first plaintiffs to challenge sexual harassment on the job as employment discrimination. After decades of workplace sexual abuse deformed the lives of black women like Butler, they were especially attuned to the connection between harassment and discrimination.
The sexual abuse of black women has long been the crime with no name; even today black women's claims are the least likely to be believed, and their abusers are the least likely to be punished. The defaming of black women as promiscuous is so deeply rooted in our culture that the victim's race is still more significant than all other factors in determining whether the alleged assailants will be arrested, charged, convicted and incarcerated.
The failure to acknowledge the elephant in the middle of the Thurmond revelation speaks volumes about the brutish life black women faced in 1925. If we cannot muster the courage nearly eighty years later to call it out, then the Thurmond bombshell, far from revealing how far we've come, tells us much more about how far we haven't.